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Alcohol Dependency Syndrome - One million UK children and counting

Published 15/03/2009

Children and alcoholic parents are a disastrous combination - and the problem is more widespread than you might think. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), there are almost one million children living with an alcohol-dependent parent in the UK today, many of them hiding their problems, living in fear and facing an overwhelming lack of support.

Research shows that familial alcoholism can affect all areas of a child's life, hampering their educational process and often leading to behavioural problems and compulsive disorders. There is much evidence to suggest that the impact of life with an alcoholic parent continues well into adult life, with NACOA estimating that some 3.7 million people in the UK are affected by parental alcoholism in some way. Research shows that the adult children of alcoholic parents are far more likely to experience drinking problems themselves.

The day-to-day problems faced by children with alcoholic parents are frightening. Some children may not experience obvious forms of abuse, but suffer from neglect: missed meals, inadequate clothing, poor school attendance, and a lack of access to medical attention.

Others are regularly exposed to rage, violence and abuse on a daily basis, which become part of the unpredictable and inconsistent environment in which they live. NACOA's research shows that aggression within the family environment is six times more common where one or both parents suffer from alcohol dependency syndrome.

So what can be done to help such children? Intervention is essential, says Sue Allchurch, research director at Linwood Group. "Having one caring adult in a child's life can help reduce these problems. Children with alcoholic parents need to understand their parent's addiction is not their fault and that they can choose other options and change their lives," she says.

Where possible, the alcoholic parent should be urged to seek help with their drinking problem. This can be difficult for their families, says Allchurch, but they need to set clear guidelines. "Non-alcoholic family members must be clear about what they are prepared to accept from the person who's drinking, and the consequences for them if they overstep these boundaries, so that they know how you are going to react. No-one should ever accept the blame for a family member's drinking," she says.

"But they should be ready to assist if the problem drinker is prepared to acknowledge their addiction, by putting them in touch with qualified alcohol dependency experts. A good treatment centre will not only help the alcoholic parent beat their addiction, but also provide family counselling, so that the whole family can begin its recovery."

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