A Unique Child - Alcohol: Drunk in charge

Annette Rawstrone
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Children can be in danger emotionally and physically from drinking parents, says Annette Rawstrone.

Binge drinking and anti-social behaviour often spring to mind when problem drinking is mentioned. Not much thought is given to the 'worrying numbers' of children in the UK whose parents misuse alcohol.

Recent research found that 2.6 million children live with a parent whose drinking puts them at risk of neglect and 705,000 live with a dependent drinker. Little is currently done to support these children, with one-third of social workers receiving no training on alcohol and many early years practitioners unaware of the problem's prevalence. 'The whole system sweeps the problem under the carpet and, together with the secrecy and stigma involved, millions of children are left to do their best in incredibly difficult circumstances,' Alcohol Concern chief executive Don Shenker says.

Grandparents and family friends have stepped in to raise 140,000 children across the UK because alcohol or substance misuse has rendered their parents incapable of caring for them, a Grandparents Plus survey revealed last week.


What constitutes problem drinking can be hard to define because people have different alcohol tolerance levels. Children's Society programme manager Jo Manning says problem drinking is 'when a person's primary relationship is with drink, being able to drink is their primary concern for the day and the child becomes secondary'. She adds, 'Children talk about an adult caring about them but not being able to care for them, which is significant.'

The devastating effects of problem drinking can impact on a child before they are even born. Heavy drinking during pregnancy is damaging for the unborn child and can lead to foetal alcohol syndrome, a condition which is not yet widely diagnosed. There is also some evidence to suggest that a father's heavy drinking may result in the child developing heart defects.

But even if there is no evidence of alcohol-related birth defects, children can still be physically affected by their parent's drinking. Alcohol affects the quality and amount of breastmilk that a mother produces, so a child does not get an adequate feed after their mother has drunk large quantities. Then there is the issue of attachment. 'The brain works in interesting ways,' explains Moira Plant, professor of alcohol studies at the University of the West of England. 'In the first 18 months of life the brain's neural pathways are affected by the degree of communication between the mother and child - touch, bonding and consistency of response. If that is not there, then the child can run the risk of not having a full connection with the mother.

'People who problem drink are inconsistent and their children are let down over and over again. They are promised things that never happen. This then affects how they then relate to other people.'

Ms Manning adds, 'Younger children believe that they are the centre of the universe and their needs have to be met immediately. If the primary carer is under the influence, then they can't be in tune with their child.'

There is also the risk of neglect and increased risk of accidental injury if the parent passes out with a lit cigarette or forgets to close the stairgate. Added to this is the danger to a child of a parent driving while drunk. Alcohol also brings a greater propensity to argue and for conflict and there is an increased chance of domestic abuse.


'It is important for early years workers to be aware that alcohol abuse is a significant issue in this country. It is on the rise and becoming more problematic,' says Ms Manning. 'Alcohol misuse should be remembered as a potential factor if it is noticed that a child or parent is displaying odd behaviour. The challenge is that there is not just one sign. There are a combination of circumstances that are likely to keep happening. Intuition has to be relied on. It's all about not ignoring the feeling that something's not quite right, and talking it through with someone.'

Positively, research has found that there is often a great resilience in the children of problem drinkers. Professor Plant explains, 'No matter how chaotic a child's home life is, if they have one older person who is consistent, then the child will probably be OK. This is a person who can reassure the child and tell them they are not responsible for their parent's behaviour. If someone can get a child to realise that, then a child will become more resilient. That person can be an aunt, teacher or early years practitioner.'


Knowing how to respond to concerns about a parent's drinking is a tricky area, especially as it must be remembered that it is not illegal to drink alcohol.

The NSPCC regularly receives calls from early years practitioners on this issue. John Cameron, head of the NSPCC helpline, says, 'There is a careful divide between those who consume alcohol before picking up children and those who are incapable of carrying out their parenting responsibilities.

'When we receive a call from a concerned childcarer, we explore what they have observed and whether they are a competent adult to care for that child. If the parent arrives paralytic then it's an easy decision, but if they smell of alcohol it could be because they were drinking the night before and just happen to be smelly.'

Mr Cameron advises practitioners to talk to the parent and carefully introduce concerns about their drinking. It may be that the parent needs support or practical help. If there is a real worry that a child is in danger, social services should be notified. The NSPCC Helpline can report cases on behalf of childcarers who may be worried about jeopardising a business relationship or confidentiality.

Further information

The 24-hour NSPCC Helpline provides professional independent advice to the public with concerns about the safety of a child on 0808 800 5000. Callers can remain anonymous.


'A mother tried to hide her drink problem from us when her 10-month-old daughter started attending the Sure Start nursery where I worked. We soon realised that something was wrong because she would smell of alcohol, slur her words and be unbalanced. It became very obvious after just a few weeks when she began turning up with alcohol in the pram.

'The child was often unkempt and dirty and became upset very easily. She did not interact well with staff or other children. The child's keyworker gave her a lot of one-on-one time to help build up her trust.

'Staff tried to make the mother feel welcome and she became close to the nursery manager. She spent a lot of time in the manager's office. Her drink problem seemed to stabilise and the child settled in to the nursery, but after a year staff members became very concerned for the child's safety. The mother was extremely drunk when she came to the setting, to the extent that she crawled through the door. We notified the manager, who asked staff to make a written report but did not take action. We were not happy about this so we contacted the area manager, who thankfully notified social services. They stepped in to support the family.

'Sadly, soon after that the mother was knocked over while drunk. She never properly recovered from her injuries and recently died. The father then removed the child from the nursery.

'My advice to other practitioners is to notify your manager even if you have the slightest concern about a parent's drinking. If you are not satisfied by how it is handled, go straight to the area manager or contact social services. Although you want to gain the trust of the parent, it's our job to ensure the health and wellbeing of the child.'



  • 'Swept under the carpet: Children affected by parental alcohol misuse,' written and researched by Jo Manning and Anna-Joy Rickard, the Children's Society, and Anne Delargy and Don Shenker, Alcohol Concern, www.alcoholconcern.org.uk
  • 'On a binge' by Professor Moira Plant (Nursery World, 11 December 2008)

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