This section of the website is an overview only. Please look at the Resources section, other areas of the website, the ENCARE page or website for your own country, and key organisations in your country for lots more information. You could also read the ‘What Can I Do?” pages in the parental domestic abuse and co-existing issues areas of this website.
› Read more about identifying children who are living with parental alcohol misuse, common signs to look out for, and ideas of how to talk to children.
To a large extent what you can do with a child affected by parental problem drinking will depend on the nature of your professional relationship with the child. Many professionals will already have substantial training and experience in talking to children about their problems. However, even if the level of your professional responsibility only allows you to do so much, you can offer vital support to a child, whilst supporting them to get help from elsewhere.
The most important thing is to create an environment and circumstances which allow a child to trust you and start to talk about what their problems are. This is often the most difficult part of any level of intervention that you will have with a child, partly because children often find it difficult to believe that adults do want to hear what they have to say, and partly because of their specific experiences within their families, where they are often neglected or abused.
A child may also never have spoken to anyone about the problems at home, and it will be very hard for them to do so. They may feel that it is their fault, they may have been told to keep the problems a secret, and so by telling someone else they will feel disloyal to their parents, they might feel ashamed or embarrassed, or they may be frightened of the consequences if and when their parents find out. As a result, the first contact that you have with a child may be the most important one as it may well shape their ability and willingness to tell you what is going on, and maybe also to seek additional appropriate support elsewhere.
The best ways of creating a trusting relationship are by providing uninterrupted time in a quiet and safe space, concentrating on the child and not doing other things, maintaining a set of warm and friendly facial and vocal expressions, maintaining appropriate eye contact and allowing the child to see that you are offering the basic necessities of warmth, empathy, genuineness and being non-judgemental.
In your discussions, try to use the language and the words used by the child to describe things. If this is the first time that a child has spoken to anyone about the problems that they are having at home then the importance of their first contact with a helping professional cannot be under-estimated.
An important question is whether or not the issues discussed with the child should be raised with one or more parents (for example, as a teacher should you ask to see one or more of the parents to discuss the issues that have been discussed.) For the most part this is something that you should discuss directly and openly with the child.
Your personal and professional judgement and any training or specific knowledge/experience that you do have will be important, along with organisational guidelines and the support of management and supervision. The most important thing to bear in mind is the safety of the child and it is vital not to take any action that might call that safety into question.
The child is trusting you with very important and private information, telling you things which, if the drinking parent were to know that they were being discussed, might make that drinking parent very defensive and very angry. It is important therefore that the child's confidentiality is respected (within clear professional and legislative limitations) and that other family members are only involved after consultation with the child and under almost all circumstances with the child's permission.
However, it will be necessary for you to assess the extent of any risk to the child as a result of their living with parental alcohol misuse; for example, by asking questions about their safety and well-being in the home, and trying to ask about violence, abuse and neglect. You may have to take action based on what a child tells you, in which case organisational procedures and the support of a manager will be essential. As much as possible, try to discuss your actions with the child and keep them informed about what is going on.
Most (generic) professionals will not feel that they are able to enter into an in-depth or long-term counselling relationship with the child, and it is important to be clear about the limits of what you are able to offer to a child.
Allowing the child to think that you are offering more than you can will lead to that child becoming disappointed and disillusioned that yet another adult has let them down. The evidence is clear that the most important of a range of protective factors and processes known to promote resilience is the stable and consistent presence of a supportive adult in the child’s life. For some children, this lifeline in an isolated, chaotic and scary environment may well be you.
› read more on resilience
What can I do as a General Professional?
- Within your remit and time available, negotiate with the child about what support you could offer – for example: time and space to talk, accessing information, accessing additional help from elsewhere, helping them make contact with other services. Further, you may be able to help by liaising directly with other professionals.
- Importantly, you may be able to continue offering time for a child to talk about what is going on at home, and to help them explore how they feel and what they need. This will be important as many children will continue to feel frightened and distressed.
- You may be able to help a child plan how they might want to talk to others – for example, their parents, or to another family member or close family friend, or a teacher about their attendance or performance at school.
- If you find that it is becoming more the norm for you to be supporting children in these kind of risky environments then you should check that you are getting the support that you need from your manager or clinical supervisor. You could also chat with your manager, and with team colleagues, about whether further training would be useful.
What can I do as a Specialist Professional?
- A different level of training, coupled with knowledge of the topic and of other local services, procedural guidelines etc., will give you the ability to work in a range of ways with children, or to help them access the help that they need, or want. You may be able to help by liaising directly with other professionals.
- You could work in a range of ways with children – for example, individual ‘one-to-one’ work, group work, family work or play/art/drama therapy.
- You should check that you are getting the support that you need from your manager or clinical supervisor. You could also chat with your manager, and with team colleagues, about whether further training would be useful.
- If you feel that there is a lack of services in your area, then you could talk with colleagues and local commissioners/service providers about how such services could be developed.