Parents want to do their best by their children – not all can. Parents who have drug or alcohol problems can be the source of very real and distressing problems for children.
Many children in Britain are living with this. The University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research in Families and Relationships worked with young people aged 15 to 27 years whose parents had this problem. We wanted to see what living with parental drug or alcohol use was like and what could be done to help. We found stories of great burdens imposed on children, but also great strength and resilience in the face of adversity. The young people in the study described how they had to take on parenting duties from an early age. Variously, they cooked, cleaned, got themselves up for school in the morning, looked after younger brothers and sisters and sometimes cared for parents themselves. It was common for them to say that parents had often not "been there" for them. Despite this, many of them recognised that parents wanted to be good parents. Some said that, despite their problems, their parents had managed to do their best for them. Having a drug or alcohol problem does not automatically disqualify a person from being a good parent. Being the child of someone with this problem does not always condemn you to a living hell. In both cases, it does make everyday life much more difficult. Parents cannot be the parents they want to be and children cannot be carefree children, but have to take on a weight of care, worry and responsibility.
What can be done? We talked to the young people about what helped them get through their experiences. They said that, although parents were often not able to fully look after them, they could show that they were looking out for them. They could show that they had the child’s interests at heart. When they felt that this was not the case, they felt especially isolated and alone and sometimes rejected the parent. Children endure a burden of silence about parental drug and alcohol problems. Those whose parents have drugs problems in particular feel they cannot talk to others about it, that it has to be surrounded by a wall of silence.
In one young man’s words: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”
Children were often aware of there being a problem without being told. Parents did not communicate about this to their children. They said there was very little or no discussion about the problem and the harm it was causing them. Parents could lessen this burden of silence. Most of the young people did not have to cope alone all the time. At different times in their childhood they relied on neighbours, friends, friends’ families, grandparents, aunts, uncles, social workers, youth workers and others. These people provided respites, support, friendship, encouragement and love – and in the case of aunts and grandparents, sometimes took over entirely from the parent for a time. Most of these relationships are informal, often sporadic and fragile. Strengthening them would support the child in their situation. School was an environment that contained problems and possibilities for the young people. Many of them talked about sports, dancing and other school activities as very enjoyable. School gave them the chance to be with their friends, and to get away from home. However, their home situation often limited what they could get out of school. Some worried so much about their parents harming themselves that they could not stay at school. Some young men disliked school intensely, finding only violence and frustration in it. Teachers could provide support, but had to be very careful about how they did so. Straightforward demands for information about what was wrong made children nervous. Those teachers that recognised that there was a problem and gave the children some leeway were appreciated – for instance, not giving a child a telling-off for falling asleep in class because her mother had been drunk and kept her up all night.
We spoke to both children of drug and alcohol users. Drug use is increasingly recognised as a problem for children, by both the Westminster government and the Scottish Executive. Alcohol use is more hidden and cuts across the social spectrum. It is often assumed that having a parent with a drug problem is worse than having a parent with an alcohol problem. We found this not to be the case for the young people we spoke to. Alcohol and drug use caused similar difficulties. They associated alcohol use more with violence and with a parent being invasive and making emotional demands on them. Alcohol use needs to be put alongside drugs in policy discussion, so that the problems these children have are acknowledged. The young people were moving, in society’s eyes, from childhood to adulthood. It is assumed that this transition involves moving from a period of dependence in childhood to independence and growing responsibility in adulthood. In our society there is a growing emphasis on independence and choice for children, paradoxically coupled with an almost frantic focus on the risk to them from a range of dangers, from McDonald’s hamburgers to air fresheners.
In contrast, the young people in our study had early independence and responsibilities, learning on the hoof how to cope with adversity, and taking on adult roles. Some saw their adult lives as partly a chance to reclaim some of the freedoms denied to them in childhood – to make something of their lives for themselves, rather than for others, as they had been doing. Some were optimistic about their future, while others said the future “was a long way away”.