Education writer James McEnaney speaks to Mary Glasgow, Chief Executive of the charity Children 1st, about the impact of adult alcohol use on children.

Can you help our readers to understand the scale of this issue? Are we talking about a small number of specifically vulnerable children being affected by adult alcohol use, or is this a bigger issue than people might realise?

Parental alcohol misuse is a widespread and largely hidden harm. Without help and support, growing up with a parent who has challenges with alcohol can have a devastating and lasting effect on every part of a child’s life.

As Scotland’s national children’s charity Children 1st provide services and campaign to prevent and protect children from harm and support children and their families to recover from trauma and abuse. Every one of our local and national services are supporting children where parents have or have had challenges with alcohol.

While there are no recent figures about the scale of the issue, according to Alcohol Focus Scotland, in 2017/2019 combined 17% of children were living with at least one parent struggling with harmful drinking. Our experience tells us that the pressures caused by the covid pandemic, and the current cost-of-living crisis are likely to have increased those figures.

Sadly, some parents use alcohol to numb their emotional distress or anxiety caused by past or present trauma and abuse. Alcohol misuse can often be one of a range of difficulties that a child and their family are facing like poverty, poor mental and physical health, strained relationships and other substance and addiction issues.

How does alcohol use impact on young people in terms of their day to day lives and, in particular, their progress through education?

Parental alcohol misuse can impact on all areas of a young person’s life including their physical and mental health, education and behaviour. If a family are facing other challenges, for example domestic abuse, family conflict and/or poverty the impact can be more acute. 

It can put pressure on family relationships; parents and carers may be distracted from the emotional and practical needs of their children leading to neglect and or anxiety in children and young people. Family finances might be stretched meaning children go without food, clothes, activities and other essential things they need to grow up safe and happy. Children may live in homes where there is chaos and mess and they may not have breakfast before school, clean clothes, support with homework and things they need to fully participate in school. 

Parental alcohol misuse can disrupt children’s everyday routines and lead to inconsistent and unpredictable boundaries, leaving children feeling confused, worried, isolated, ashamed, uncertain, on edge and anxious. Poor mental health and emotional wellbeing can then affect their ability to concentrate and learn in school, make friends and form relationships with the adults around them.

Children may need to take on caring responsibilities for other children and adults in the house which can add additional pressure and leave little time for young people to simply be children. Dealing with the stigma surrounding parents who misuse alcohol can lead to children hiding what happens at home, keeping secrets and protecting the people who should be looking after them for fear of consequences. 

All of this can significantly impact on children’s education. Young people may often arrive at school tired, hungry and unable to concentrate on learning because of worries about the situation they face at home. Children may be late to school and have erratic attendance.  Lack of money for school outings, participation in clubs and community activities can impact their ability to make friends and develop vital social and life skills.  

Over time children can avoid or disengage from education altogether because they do not have the support they need and are too scared and ashamed to tell anyone what is happening.

Read more in the series, Scotland & Alcohol:

What sort of work does Children 1st do to support families and young people affected by this issue?

Our family support teams work alongside children and families across Scotland to address the emotional, practical and financial impact that problem alcohol use can have on children and the whole family. We visit families at home and we get to know the child and their parents to build trust and understand what is really going on. This is important as most often parents and children are scared about what might happen if they talk about their problems.

Our staff then agree a plan with the family to work on what must change or improve and what help is needed to keep the children safe and the adults cope better. Sometimes what we do is very practical such as help to tidy up the house, get children to nursery and school, give financial advice and help to manage debt, and sometimes it includes very skilled conversations about what the root cause of the drinking is and why it is having a harmful impact on the children. We offer support to children and their parents because we know when parents are well then children are too.

Sometimes the root causes are related to abuse or neglect in the adult's childhood and we can help support recovery through counselling and sign posting to other services.  The support we provide as a charity is flexible and specific to the individual needs of the children and families we work with. All families are different, and we know that the greatest improvements come when we make strong, compassionate relationships with them.

For example, in Glasgow, the Children 1st Glasgow Recovery Families Service provides intensive support to families affected by substance use, including parental alcohol misuse. Recovery workers offer support to children by providing them with trusted support workers who they can build relationships through activities, which help them to express their feelings, worries and talk about what they need. In partnership with other services, we link parents to specialist support. If we are concerned that children are at risk of harm, we work with other agencies to make sure they are safe. We also hold activities like drop-in groups, and activity groups for children and families together to help repair strong family relationships because this helps keep children safe from harm and gives space to the family to have good times and fun together.

With our partners, including the Alcohol and Drug Partnership, City Wide Recovery Communities and the Volunteer Tutors Organisation we offer family friendly recovery spaces where families can come together for a shared meal and to spend time taking part in fun activities. Parents can attend recovery sessions and children are supported by tutors from VTO with schoolwork and learning opportunities to help them with their school homework. We also provide parents with advice and support on a variety of issues on a drop-in basis at city wide Recovery Cafés.

Are we doing the right things, or enough, at a national policy level, or are there changes that you would like to see in order to help young people in Scotland?

The intensive, trauma-informed, whole family support that Children 1st offers families in communities across Scotland is recognised by the Scottish Government as a key way to support children and families who are affected by parental alcohol misuse.

The Promise (Independent Care Review) is absolutely clear that no child should be taken into care because support has not been made available to their family.  But we know as a charity, that the sad reality is that without the generous support of the public, we would keep far fewer children safe and help a lot less families recover from Scotland’s widespread problems with alcohol.

Despite the Scottish Government’s 2021 commitment to invest at least £500m in a Whole Family Wellbeing Fund  over five years, only just over a quarter of this money has been committed so far. With public authorities making really difficult budget decisions existing family support services are on a knife-edge. Services face fragmented year on year funding arrangements, cuts, or even closure. 

Prioritising and ring-fencing the Whole Family Wellbeing Fund so that children and families get the support they need, when they need it, is critical to breaking the cycles of childhood adversity and trauma, which is the source of so much alcohol misuse in Scotland.