Sober warning on rise in alcoholism

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Excess alcohol lies behind one in three child abuse incidents.

Nicolas Barnard reports.

The Government is being urged to act on alcoholism as two reports reveal the misery caused in families of heavy drinkers.

An analysis of calls made to the confidential helpline ChildLine showed alcohol was the root of many of the callers' problems.

The trained counsellors heard from children living in fear of violence, neglect, sexual abuse or family break-up.

Research also published this week by the Alcohol Concern charity showed a continuing increase in alcohol abuse, with nearly one million children thought to live with a parent who drinks harmful amounts of alcohol. Drinking was a factor in one third of child abuse cases and 40 per cent of domestic violence incidents.

Yet both charities say that such a sense of shame surrounds problem drinking that many children never speak about it - and if they do, the support they need simply does not exist. Most alcohol support services exist only for the adult drinkers.

They called for Government action, including a high-profile public awareness campaign, and training for all who work with children - including teachers and youth workers - in spotting the signs of alcohol abuse in families and counselling children because so few come forward to talk about it.

They also say there is a need for counselling services for young people who may be caring for parents with drink problems, support for alcohol-abusing women - more likely to hide their problem - and anger-management programmes for abusive men.

ChildLine chief executive Valerie Howarth said: "Most of the children who tell ChildLine about their parents' drinking problems desperately want to remain with their families. They often still love the drinker while hating their behaviour when they are under the influence."

The charities suggest that personal and social studies in schools should include alcohol awareness - and acknowledge the impact a parent's drinking can have on their children as a way of encouraging them to talk about their problems.

ChildLine monitored the 3,200 calls it took in the year up to March 1996 in which children mentioned alcohol abuse by parents - 60 per cent of them had suffered physical assault; a similar number reported serious family problems including assaults on their mothers. One in five had experienced divorce or separation while one in sevensuffered sexual abuse.

Some spoke of bruises, black eyes and broken limbs, and said they had been kept off school until their wounds healed. Some said the verbal abuse was even worse. They described lives lived on an emotional see-saw, often fearing going home because they could never tell their parent's mood.

Men with drink problems outnumbered women by two to one, while 7 per cent of children said both their parents or carers were alcoholics. One in five cases involved lone fathers - yet lone fathers head only one family in 50 in the UK.

Some had taken over the role of carer in the home, looking after siblings - and often after their drunken parents as well. One 13-year-old girl said she had to clear up her mother's urine when she wet herself on the couch.

Others were frightened of their sober parent leaving. Many reported feeling guilt, anger, and shame: one 11-year-old said her mother had come downstairs drunk and naked while her schoolfriends were round.

Beyond the Limit: children who live with parental alcohol misuse available price Pounds 5 plus 50p pp from ChildLine (alcohol report), Royal Mail Building, Studd Street, London N1 0QW. Under the Influence: coping with parents who drink too much, available for Pounds 7 from Alcohol Concern, Waterbridge House, 32-36 Loman Street, London SE1.

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