How much of a problem is it?

It is incredibly difficult to know for sure the numbers of children and adolescents affected by parental problem drinking. This is partly because no such figures are routinely collected in any country, but also because of the often secret (hidden) nature of the problem due to the shame, guilt, fear and embarrassment felt by many children and adolescents (and other family members).

Additionally, the fact that alcohol misuse rarely occurs in isolation, often being accompanied by, for example, domestic violence, mental health problems, misuse of other substances, and difficulties with housing, employment, money or relationships, adds to the complexity of trying to work out how many people might be affected. Finally, the range of ways of defining the problem makes it hard to come to any agreement in any one country, let alone across Europe, as to how many people might be affected.

However, attempts have been made to try and estimate the number of children and adolescents affected by parental problem drinking. One European report in the late 1990s estimated that there were between 4.5 and 7.7 million children under 15 years of age affected in the 15 EU countries (at the time) plus Norway. This is about 6.8-11.7% of the overall population of around 60 million children across these countries under 15 years of age at the time. In addition a number of national studies have been undertaken in various European countries. Here are a few examples [the web-pages or website for your country may have more information]:

One study in the UK conducted in 1995-1996 analysed the calls to a national children’s telephone helpline in a 12 month period, finding that just over 3,000 calls came from children who had concerns about the drinking of one or both of their parents.

  • England: An estimated 780,000 – 1.3 million children in England are affected by parental alcohol misuse (National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England, 2004). 
  • Spain: One study in Spain estimated that “children of alcoholics” constitute 11% of the overall population. 
  • Finland: A Finnish survey conducted in 1994 reported that nearly a fifth (17%) of respondents said that they had grown up in an environment where there was alcohol or drug problems.  
  • The Netherlands: In 1996 about 8% of the Dutch population aged 18-64 years reported having or having had at least one parent with an alcohol problem. (taken from Bongers 1998 and Cuijpers et al. 1999 - see written materials page for details).  
  • Germany: In Germany, it is estimated that over two and a half million children under 18 years of age grow up with at least one parent who has an alcohol (or drug) problem.  
  • Sweden: There are estimated to be 250,000 children in Sweden who come from a family where a parent has an alcohol problem.   
  • Denmark: Estimates in Denmark suggest that there are about 60,000 children who live in a family where there are serious alcohol problems.

Eurocare report - Alcohol Problems in the Family 1998 › link to source