'I was scared of my parents dying and of me being left with no family'

21st January 2011 at 00:00
If a child is dealing with a parent's illness, alcohol or drug abuse at home, education sessions and charities can offer vital support

Alcohol education sessions in schools are supposed to have an impact, but for Rachel*, a talk given by the police did more than that. She describes it "like a knife being put in her back".

"They talked about things like liver cancer and it really hit home," she says. "It opened my eyes but at the same time I was scared of my parents dying and of me being left with no family."

Rachel does admit that the class were asked if anyone was living with an alcohol abuser at home, but she didn't put her hand up for fear of being teased by her classmates. The point that help was available for anyone experiencing parental alcohol abuse was put across, but no contacts or pointers were given.

As part of the health and well-being remit, schools are obliged to provide alcohol and drug abuse education to pupils. At the time of the education session, Rachel was 15 and both her parents were drinking heavily. Soon after, she left home to live with friends.

Karen Yellowlees is a senior practitioner with Barnardo's Hopscotch project, working with children and young people affected by parental alcohol or drug abuse in the Perth and Kinross area.

She has spoken with young people who have found these education sessions traumatic. "I don't hear it often but it is there," says Ms Yellowlees. "But just because they don't come out and say it, I would not say it's not an issue.

"It can be very painful listening to the dangers and effects of alcohol and the child is thinking `that's my mum'. If the way alcohol education is presented is not sympathetic and without empathy, it can be hard. The child is left to unpick that and left to make sense of it all. It can make them vulnerable and upset."

But it is not only the subject of alcohol abuse which can hit a nerve. For those living with cancer in the family, being taught about the damage of nicotine or the science of a tracheotomy can be terrifying.

Stuart Danskins is development manager for West of Scotland, Macmillan Cancer Support. In his experience, taking into account family backgrounds is a great challenge for teachers whose mandate is simply to teach.

He says: "When I worked for the information line, I used to be contacted sporadically by parents and teachers concerned because they were unsure how to handle situations where something had happened to a pupil. Very often they are not aware of circumstances."

Macmillan does work with parents and has produced a booklet for them, advising that if possible they should make the school aware of what is going on at home. For certain circumstances, such as cancer or other illnesses, this might be feasible, but with drug or alcohol abuse it is more likely that the child will do everything to cover up.

Barbara O'Donnell, director of services at Alcohol Focus Scotland, says: "There is a plethora of children who won't disclose. We need a place they are comfortable with. Children are resilient, but they need help coping."

Alcohol Focus Scotland has produced a series of resources aimed at children. The Rory learning resource pack is aimed at children aged five to 11 and includes a book, games, worksheets and a hand puppet for teachers to use with children.

Rory is a fictional dog whose owner drinks too much and neglects him at times. The pack was piloted in nine West Lothian primary schools, where an evaluation found that children, and particularly those from P3 upwards, understood some of the key issues surrounding alcohol and came up with a range of answers which opened up the door to further learning surrounding alcohol.

Tony Waclawski is a quality improvement officer for Glasgow, where a drug, alcohol and tobacco pack is issued to all primary schools. He says: "In terms of children with relatives who are heavy drinkers, teachers are always sensitive about causing distress, and lessons would reflect this. However, the need to educate the child is still there, and they need to know health-promoting messages, which may seem at odds with what they see."

* Rachel is not her real name



- Suggest an anonymous questionnaire beforehand to find out about home lives. (Rachel)

- Make a point of saying where to go to for help and information. Have information leaflets available, perhaps with the school nurse. (Rachel)

- Teachers need to keep alert. Young people won't knock on the door and tell you. You need to be aware of how young people think. (Karen Yellowlees, Hopscotch)

- Remember to have a heightened awareness that what you are saying could cause distress. Tell the class to speak to someone if they are worried. (Karen Yellowlees)

- Be aware of what help there is out there. (Karen Yellowlees)

- Training is the key. It is about using resources in the best possible way, and the skill of the worker who needs to know ways of engaging with youngsters. (Barbara O'Donnell, Alcohol Focus Scotland)


Alcohol Focus Scotland has resources for children from nursery upwards www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.ukleaflets_publicationsrory_storybook

Macmillan Cancer Support has interactive resources for using with ten to 14-year-olds www.cancertalk.org.ukindex.html.

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