The 'new normal' for children affected by their parent's drinking: what's happening and how can we help?

Piers Henriques | September 2020 | 9 minutes

Piers Henriques from charity Nacoa asks what's happening to the hundreds of thousands of UK children living with a heavy-drinking parent during COVID-19, and how they can get the support they need and deserve.

2020 has been a year with a difference for Nacoa, the national helpline charity for everyone affected by their parent’s drinking. Our services did not close throughout the lockdown, and in settling into a ‘new normal’, we’ve witnessed in real time the shifting anxieties and struggles of children and young people living with a parent who drinks too much.

Nacoa has received record numbers of calls since the pandemic hit the UK. In weeks three and four of lockdown, calls doubled to our helpline compared with 2019. We saw in those weeks what we sometimes call the ‘Christmas effect’, where calls in the lead-up to Christmas and New Year decrease, but then rise steeply in early-to-mid-January. This was memorably described by Nacoa CEO Hilary Henriques as ‘a triumph of hope over experience, which we know children of alcohol-dependent parents are very good at’.

Since that critical peak, requests for help have levelled off to an extent but continue to be significantly higher than in 2019. There has been a 38% overall increase in calls since last year: around 260 extra requests for help per month. Significantly, the increase has been largely made up of the 12 to 18 age group, i.e. young people most of whom would normally have been at school or college.

Nacoa has received record numbers of calls since the pandemic hit the UK. In weeks three and four of lockdown, calls doubled to our helpline compared with 2019.

In March, we published our Covid Resource Pack, in which we anticipated some of the potential problems during the Lockdown, including parents bulk-buying alcohol, and children becoming isolated from support from schools and welfare services. These children will often already live with a heightened sense of responsibility as a young carer and are bound to feelings of shame within the home. Comments by helpline callers, which we summarised in our Covid So Far report, illustrate these issues:

"The whole Coronavirus situation has led to her ordering huge crates of beer and wine."

"There is no escape and I’m more trapped than ever."

"Coronavirus led to me being at home more and my mum’s drinking is worse than ever. I am so isolated and she is very violent, I don’t know where to turn to."

"I feel that I can usually deal with everything on my own but lockdown has made things unbearable and I’m struggling to cope."

Callers have also raised with us:

  • Worries about furloughing, job security and cashflow increasing family tensions
  • Increased aggression and frustration in the home
  • A parent’s existing problem has got worse or relapsed
  • Increase in suicidal thoughts and intentions
  • Students and adult children returning to family homes where there is an existing alcohol problem
  • Work and education moving permanently or semi-permanently online, reinforcing physical isolation within the dysfunctional home
  • A feeling of being overlooked in the media focus on Covid-19.

The following quotes illustrate those situations all too clearly:

‘Dad’s drinking again, it’s my worst nightmare come true. He blames the Corona virus which has messed things up for him.’

‘I lost my Mum to alcoholism. I feel as though my grief doesn't matter anymore now that coronavirus is everyone's priority. I'm not sure where to turn.’

‘It’s hard to focus on anything else when Covid-19 is so prominent in the media. I am more isolated than ever and a lot of my support services have stopped.’

‘Coronavirus has made finding part time work impossible, so I can’t go to the shops get some bits and pieces.’

‘My parents have been drinking more as things become more uncertain.’

At Nacoa, we’ve been here to answer these calls. But there is more we can all do to help. If you know someone affected by parental drinking, check in. Be someone they can talk to. Allow them to explain their experiences in their own language, without judgement. Help them know that they are not alone and that help is out there. Nacoa can find out for anyone what services are available, and we provide free information resources for mental health workers, teachers, and other professionals.

Nacoa also provides many digital resources you can use to help start thinking about these issues. One great example of this is a recent project, Lockdown Nell, an update by children’s author Jane Elson of her popular children’s novel Will You Catch Me? This wonderful short story for young people is based on Nacoa helpline reports, and was published for free on the Nacoa website as a text animation video, audiobook, and PDF booklet. Elson’s writing gives authentic voice to the resigned but brutally frustrated emotions of children living with parental alcohol problems:

‘Mum is still passed out, flopped over the kitchen table. I put the sick bowl and a glass of water and packet of headache tablets next to her hand for when she wakes up. Then I will put her to bed. It is my job.’

For us, this story feels intensely accurate. It’s a hidden story made visible: a reminder of the one third of Nacoa callers who report never having disclosed to anyone that their life is overshadowed by a parent’s drinking. Nell’s is a silent, and often silenced, voice that we should take special pains to hear during this time of pandemic.

Nacoa is the national helpline charity for everyone affected by their parent’s drinking, offering a free, confidential helpline service and information for everyone affected and those concerned for their welfare.

If you are affected by your parent’s drinking, you are not alone.