Help & advice
Having as many sources of support as possible can help children cope with their parent’s drinking and the knock-on effects of growing up with parental alcoholism. Everyone can make a difference including parents, step-parents, carers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and parents of friends, neighbours, teachers, counsellors, and professional or voluntary organisations.
Consistent relationships can help people challenge negative beliefs about themselves e.g. I’m useless, I’m rubbish at everything, everything’s my fault and formulate new positive beliefs e.g. I’m capable, someone cares, someone believes, someone understands, someone knows how I feel. In these relationships children can substitute defensive behaviours and damaging coping mechanisms with more effective ways to cope. This can show that the world can be different from the one he or she has always known; there is help and there is hope.
Every single one of us can touch the life of a child, helping to minimise the harm of feeling worthless, invisible and responsible for the problems at home.
What you can do to help children, young people and adults affected by their parent’s drinking
Understand more about alcohol and the effects on the family
Find out more about alcoholism and what it can be like to live in a family affected by alcohol problems. Try to appreciate how complex the situation can be. When a parent has a drink problem or other addiction, children often take on responsibilities beyond their age and may have a greater awareness of the situation than you might expect. Finding out more can help you to be in the best position to support someone affected by their parent’s drinking. For information, see the Concerned others and Adults Information section. To look at some frequently asked questions, see the the Concerned others and Adults Frequent Questions section.
Just be there
Simply being there and understanding can make a difference. Don’t underestimate how important it is for them to know that there is a reliable and caring adult or friend who is there for them. When alcohol is the family secret, the family rules don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel keep problems hidden from the outside world, in an effort to keep the family together and ‘safe’. To speak out can sometimes feel like family betrayal or lead to isolation within the family. Therefore the child may not want to talk about the problem right now. Just knowing there is a safe place to talk if they need to can help.
Encourage them to be themselves and spend time doing things they enjoy
When families are affected by a parent’s alcohol problem, it can be very worrying for everyone, especially children. When someone has a drink problem, alcohol often becomes his or her main focus in life. This can leave children of all ages, including adults, feeling as if they are not important or cared for. Remind them that they are important. Sometimes worries can take over, and taking a break (even if just for a short while) can help. Encourage them to find time for things that interest them, whether it’s sport or hobbies, playing in their room or in the garden, walking the dog, meeting up with friends or even just taking a bath, reading a book or watching TV.
Reassure them that it is OK to talk about their feelings and talking is not being disloyal to their family. It is an important part of looking after themselves and may help them feel less alone. Allow them to talk at their own pace, without interrupting. Try not to make negative comments about their parents. Alcohol problems are not about a lack of love and children do not want their parents to be judged. Many children fear they will not be believed: just by giving them space to be heard, you can validate their feelings. This can help them make some sense of the chaos that often exists when a parent has an alcohol problem, enabling them to understand that it is not their fault.
Help them to understand more about alcohol and the effects on the family
Helping people understand what alcoholism is and how it affects everyone in the family may help them to feel better. Try having a conversation with them about alcoholism. It can be helpful to relate to real-life events or things on TV, in books etc. to get the conversation started. The Information pages include some useful videos that you could watch together. This is a complex problem so people can easily feel overwhelmed, try to keep it simple and talk about in manageable chunks.
You may also find our music video “A change is gonna come” to be a good starting point, which lets people know they are not alone.
Key messages to try and get across
- Their parent’s drinking is not, and never was, their fault.
- Alcoholism is like an illness where people have lost control over their drinking and usually need help to stop. As hard as it is for those around them, only the person drinking can make the decision to accept help.
- They can feel better whether their parent continues to drink or not.
- Many families keep alcohol problems a secret, so sometimes it can feel like they are the only one going through this. 1 in 5 children in the UK live with a parent who drinks too much.
- It is OK to talk about what’s going on and how they are feeling.
- They are not alone and there is help.
You could also encourage them to remember the six Cs
- I didn’t cause it
- I can’t cure it
- I can’t control it
- I can take care of myself
- I can communicate my feelings
- I can make healthy choices
Pass on details of this website and the Nacoa helpline
The Nacoa helpline is here for everyone affected by a parent’s drinking, including children, adults, concerned others and professionals. Our trained volunteer helpline counsellors understand what it can be like when a parent has an alcohol problem. Our helpline is free and confidential. We won’t judge and we are here to help. People can tell us as little or as much as they wish. Calls or emails can be long or short and they can contact us as often as they want. They don’t even need to tell anyone else they’ve talked to us. Sometimes just talking or writing to someone anonymously about how they are feeling can help. For more information about contacting the helpline and our promise see Nacoa Promise.
It may be useful for you to have our contact information to hand which you can pass on. We have a range of publications which may be helpful, including leaflets and small helpline contact cards. To download our publications see the Publications section. If you would like to receive an information pack in the post, please . Leaflets and posters are provided free of charge, although as a charity relying entirely on voluntary donations, contributions are always welcome.
We will happily research sources of support in their area. There are also details of some other places that can help below. Providing someone with information about people they can talk to can help them feel less alone.
Help children stay safe
When a parent has a drink problem, alcohol becomes the priority and can lead them to being less emotionally and physically available for their children. As the person drinking organises their life around alcohol, the whole family often adapts to cope with the drinking and associated behaviour in order to keep the problem hidden and the family together. The family rules don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel develop to protect the illusion of a ‘normal’ family and can also make other problems difficult to talk about.
This can lead to children being neglected both physically and emotionally. They may also witness violence and aggression within the family. Family roles can change, resulting in children taking on additional responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning and caring for their parents or siblings. This altered family system can contribute to an increased risk of abuse.
Remember that by speaking out children are being very brave and risk being isolated by their family. Reassure them that it is OK to talk and allow them to do this in their own time. Giving them the chance to be heard can help them to realise it is not their fault. Sometimes it can be helpful for children to have somewhere to go when things are bad. Perhaps having a quiet place to do their homework or somewhere to have some time away from home may be helpful
If you are worried about a child’s safety or wellbeing, talk it through with Nacoa, our volunteer helpline counsellors understand about situations like this. You can also phone the NSPCC (0808 800 5000) or your local duty social worker in Children’s Social Care (you can remain anonymous if you prefer). You can find your council's contact details online or in the phonebook.
Be aware of any professional obligations you may have regarding child protection. Children will often be wary about the situation being taken out of their control: try to keep them informed about what you can do to help and who else you need to talk to. Remind them that if they are frightened at any time, they can contact Nacoa or ChildLine (0800 1111) for help. They can always talk to Nacoa without giving their name.
Look after yourself
Hearing about someone living in a difficult situation is not easy. If someone has talked about upsetting or abusive situations to you, it is natural to feel shocked or angry. Make use of appropriate support networks to take care of yourself. You are playing a critical role in the person’s life. Just as they value you and you value them, you need to value yourself and be aware of your own needs. Nacoa is here for children, adults, concerned others and professionals alike.
Helping people coping with the death of a parent
The idea of a parent dying is scary for everyone, and when alcohol is involved it can bring up a huge range of difficult feelings. Having a caring adult around at this time is really important; just being there and listening can help. You may find it helpful to read our Helping Children Cope with the Death of a Parent information sheet. This includes details of other organisations that can also help people cope with bereavement.
If you are a parent concerned about how your child is being, or has been, affected by your or another person’s drinking, in addition to the ideas above, you may also find it helpful to look at our Information for Parents leaflet.
In addition to the ideas above, you may also find it helpful to look at our Information for Professionals leaflet.
In addition to the ideas above, you may also find it helpful to look at our Information for Teachers leaflet. If you are interested in planning an event or assembly to raise awareness of the problems faced by children whose parents drink too much, you may like to tie it in with our annual awareness campaign COA Week.
You may also find it helpful to look at the Publications section which has useful materials that you can download.
Other sources of support
Tel: 0800 0086 811
Support for people who have grown up in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families, through local meetings and literature.
Alcohol Change UK is a national charity working to create a world free from the harm caused by alcohol. They do this through expanding knowledge, campaigning for better policy and regulation, shifting cultural norms, improving drinking behaviours and working for more and better support and treatment.
Helpline: 0207 403 0888
Support for anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking, through local meetings and literature. There are a few Alateen meetings around the UK for young people aged 12-17. Over 12s can go to an Al-Anon meeting but the group will predominantly be adults.
Helpline: 0800 1111
24-hour helpline and website providing support for young people around a range of issues.
Support groups and activities for children who help look after other members of their family, because of alcohol or drug use or other health problems.