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With National Children of Alcoholics Awareness Week held this month, Emma Spiegler urges us to tackle the silence, secrecy and stigma faced by many children and young adults 

 For many young people, feeling desperately alone comes with the territory of growing up with a parent who has an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. Life is lived on a constant edge, as children try to work out when their parent is next likely to embarrass them, when their dad will lose his job again, when mum might leave the cooker on – and for some, when the next push, punch or tirade of abuse will come in their direction. 

The usual teenage worries fall to the bottom of the priority list when it comes to what they wish for, and how they see their future. The number one wish for many young people will be for their parent to give up an often long, painful, and self-destructive cycle of misusing alcohol or drugs. As we know, it’s no easy feat to give up an addiction, and more often than not it requires professional support and ongoing aftercare, not to mention the parent recognising they have a problem and having a desire to get help. Children, however, may see things differently. 

Through a child’s eyes, when dad tells his son that he is a ‘complete and utter nuisance’ and that he ‘wishes he had never been born’ on a daily basis, the young boy may spend much of his time wondering where he has gone wrong and what he can do to make things better, thinking this might give his dad a reason to stop drinking.  

A recent case study is all too typical. A young boy aged 11 (let’s say his name is Joe) loves his dad. He looks up to him and enjoys being taken to football every Sunday. After football, Joe’s dad goes to the pub and comes home at 2am, then wakes Joe up to tell him how much he loves him. Joe then finds it confusing in the mornings, when he asks dad for the milk, and his dad then shouts at him to ‘get it yourself you lazy shit’. Joe’s mum doesn’t seem to want to talk about dad’s drinking. Her response to the regular drunken 2am wake-ups is to just ignore dad and go back to sleep. So in Joe’s eyes, there’s no big problem here at home. 

But Joe often lies awake at night hearing mum and dad argue about the bills and dad’s drinking. He sits at his school desk wondering if mum will really do what she said, and leave the family home. A heavy burden is on his shoulders, and yet he is not sure why he feels the way he does and who he could talk to. For these young people who do know what the problem is, and are aware that their parent has an addiction, they will often keep this family secret hidden behind closed doors.

Telling a friend or teacher that their mum or dad is an alcoholic is unthinkable and the shame and loyalty to their parent keeps them silent. To tell isn’t an option because of the fear of being ‘taken away’ by social services and because mum and dad have told them not to, or they might suffer the consequences. Telling isn’t an option because the unspoken law in the alcoholic home is not to tell, not to talk, and not to trust.

Sometimes there seems nowhere to turn. One 16-year-old, contacting NACOA, said: ‘I’m alone in the house with my sister. Mum and dad have just left, they had a massive fight. Dad has been drinking. He always drinks and then hits us and says it’s our fault and that he wishes we hadn’t been born.’

The annual National Children of Alcoholics week is from 10 to 16 February. Set up by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), it brings together organisations such as Children of Addicted Parents and People, and Active Europe, to raise awareness of the 2.6m young people affected by parental alcoholism. As professionals we can take this opportunity to put up posters, hold events and reach out to young people who are afraid to talk and may not know what the problem is. 

Emma Spiegler is founding director of Children of Addicted Parents and People (COAP). 

COAP will be running a school poster campaign throughout 2013 with the  support of Libertine London. Saying the Unsaid, an event to raise awareness of parental alcoholism and addiction, will be held on 15 February  in London. For more information email info@coap.org.uk and visit www.coaweek.org.uk for more information about COA week.