Living with Parental Alcohol Misuse

Parental alcohol misuse damages and disrupts the lives of children and families in all areas of society, spanning all social classes. It blights the lives of whole families and harms the development of children trapped by the effects of their parents’ problematic drinking. Bottling it Up: Turning Point, 2006 p1

There needs to be similar recognition that excessive drinking also has impacts beyond the drinkers themselves. Family, friends and work colleagues of excessive drinkers can also suffer very seriously…..this will often be long before the health effects of harmful drinking have become apparent to the drinker. Safe Sensible Social, p10

This section of the website focuses on how to help children living in families where there is parental alcohol misuse. The nature of the problem, the extent of the problem, the impact on children, and broad guidance (with examples) of how to respond will be summarised. Ideas for further reading and resources will be given. More detail can also be found on other pages of this website (follow the navigation on the left).


An estimated 780,000–1.3 million children are affected by parental alcohol misuse in England; this is believed to be 5 times greater than the number affected by parental drug misuse. Scotland’s Plan for Action on Alcohol Problems calculates that 80,000-100,000 children are affected by parental alcohol misuse. Further, UK research has highlighted particularly high numbers of substance misuse (including alcohol misuse), and hence children and families affected by this issue, on the caseloads of Social Workers.

For example, a study of nearly 300 social services cases in four London Boroughs by Forrester & Harwin (2006), involving 120 children, found that a third of the cases involved parental substance misuse, with alcohol misuse present in two thirds of these cases (sole alcohol misuse and co-existing alcohol and drug misuse). Another study of just over 350 cases from six Local Authorities in England by Hedy Cleaver and colleagues (2007) reported that the reason for the initial referral was parental substance misuse in half of cases (the prevalence of alcohol misuse is unclear). Both these studies reported that younger children, particularly 5 years old and under, were over-represented in their samples.

UK addiction policy has tended, until recently, to focus much more on drug misuse and also on developing responses that focus on the individual with the drug problem.

Significantly, however, alcohol policy is increasingly recognising the impact of alcohol misuse on families and communities and is starting to highlight the very particular needs of children living with parental alcohol misuse. Specific mention has been given to children (and families more generally) in the ‘National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy for England’ (2004), and its first revision ‘Safe Sensible Social’ (2007), as well as in the National Treatment Agency’s ‘Models for Alcohol Misusers’ (2006).

The publication of Turning Points ‘Bottling it Up’ report in 2006 did much to widely promote the needs of this much marginalised group of people. Similarly, through the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda (2003) and the ‘Children’s Plan’, as well as the publication of important reviews such as ‘Families at Risk’, the need to support, particularly vulnerable, families has been welcomed.

Working Together to Safeguard Children’ and new, cross disciplinary and multi-agency run Children’s Trusts are important steps in driving forward the vision of the national children and families agenda.

However, despite increased inclusion of the needs of children and families in national policy, a lack of specific detailed mention of children who living with parental alcohol misuse, coupled with a general lack of additional resources, is of concern and hampering developments in this field:

The Government has introduced a number of strategies intended to tackle the harm caused by alcohol and to safeguard the welfare of children. Under the antisocial behaviour agenda, separate parenting initiatives have been promoted for working with problem families. Yet there still remains a big gap between policy and practice, as these different strands of policy have not been translated into integrated support for children and their alcohol-misusing parents. Bottling it Up: Turning Point, 2006 page 4 

Scottish policy in this area is well advanced, though similarly tends to focus on drugs or substance misuse more generically, but documents such as ‘Getting our Priorities Right’ (good practice guidance for working with children and families affected by substance misuse) are very important. 

Further, a ‘Think Tank’ review (organised by the Aberlour Child Care Trust and the Scottish Association of Alcohol and Drug Action Teams)  has played a central role in highlighting that more attention needs to be given to Scottish children affected by parental alcohol misuse.

The Isle of Man Government has recently made available for consultation an ‘Implementation Plan to Support Significant Others Affected by Substance Misuse’, believed to be the first such specific policy for families affected by substance misuse anywhere in the world. Whilst focused on all family members, and considering both drugs and alcohol, this is hopefully a useful document in that it offers specific ideas on how to develop detailed policy plans for families.

The Welsh Assembly Government has published it’s Working Together to Reduce Harm: The Substance Misuse Strategy for Wales 2008-2018.  Significantly, Action Area 3 of this Strategy is Supporting Families and there is much here which could be translated into policy developments across the rest of the UK.