Alcohol - Health Committee Contents

Memorandum by the National Association for the Children of Alcoholics (AL 10)


  This document explains the role and function of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) a charity that was founded to meet the needs of children of alcohol-dependent parents of all ages. It details the specific problems faced by these children and the consequences for them that can last throughout their lives. They are three times as likely to develop an addiction to alcohol or other drugs themselves and they are three times as likely to consider suicide both in childhood and later in adulthood.

  1.  There exists a stigma within society around alcoholism or any other form of addiction, especially in the home. Children will often conceal their difficulties and sense of inferiority. They therefore collude with their parent's secrecy and denial of problems. As a result these children are neither recognised nor properly supported. Without help, these children often repeat the cycle of alcoholism themselves.


  2.  Nacoa is a registered charity founded in 1990. It aims to address the problems of children growing up in homes where one or both parents suffer from alcoholism or a similar addictive problem. This includes children of alcohol-dependent parents of all ages, many of whose problems only become apparent in adulthood.

  3.  Research carried out on behalf of Nacoa indicates that there are 2.8 million adult children of alcohol-dependent parents in the United Kingdom and there are currently nearly a million children living with parental alcoholism.

  4.  Nacoa's services include a free, confidential, telephone, letter and email helpline providing information, advice and ongoing support for children of alcohol-dependent parents and people concerned for their welfare such as family members, friends, teachers and other professionals. Nacoa provides a valuable, non-judgemental service for callers some of whom are as young as seven years old. They can call as often as they like. Some develop a relationship with the charity over a number of months or even years.

  5.  Nacoa's service includes providing an empathic listening ear and reading stories to younger callers—something which many take for granted as a natural part of a loving childhood. Since 1990 Nacoa has responded to over 137 000 requests for help.

  6.  The Nacoa helpline service aims to identify a caller's motivations and symptoms whilst providing focussed listening and ongoing support. These children often have issues with trust. They are often looking for someone who understands the complexity of parental alcoholism. Using the "alcohol-dependent family system" as a tool to identify the role(s) adopted by children, Nacoa provides a safe way for callers to disclose their problems and fears. Success can be measured by the annual increase in calls—since 2000 calls have increased by 760%.

  7.  Nacoa's website provides information, advice, personal experiences, training materials, factual and resource information, research and links to other organisations. In 2008 there were nearly 79,000 visits to the site.

  8.  Many children of alcohol-dependent parents grow up to be successful and productive members of society. However as the table at appendix 1 shows a number develop serious problems both as children and later as adults.

  9.  There are a number of common problems in these families. Lack of money occurs when a significant amount of the household budget is spent on alcohol. This may take priority over everything else leaving the rest of the family (sometimes this can be one of the children) to make sure that their basic needs such as food and clothing are met.

  10.  Growing up in a family where alcoholism is an issue can be very confusing. It can be difficult for children to predict what state of mind their parent(s) will be in when they get home from school. They might be in a good mood and want to do something fun, or they may become violent or irrational. What makes life even more confusing is when the family collude, tell lies to cover up the truth in order to keep their problems secret from outside society. Many children feel unable to take friends home, as they are embarrassed or fearful about their parent's behaviour.

  11.  Nacoa's research indicates that the learned habits of secrecy, manipulation and an inability to identify one's feelings are twice as likely to be prevalent in a family struggling with alcoholism. Irrational behaviour is five times more likely and 89% of adult children claimed that their childhood home was not a place to be proud of.

  12.  Many children may not suffer from obvious forms of abuse but they are often neglected or lack the little things, which are so crucial to our wellbeing. They may be exposed to rage, violence and abuse on a daily basis. This becomes part of the unpredictable and inconsistent environment in which they live.

  13.  Some children live in fear. Sometimes they are simply ignored, deprived of being loved unconditionally. They may lack care, clothing, food, warmth and being cherished for who they are. They often feel unwanted. Research indicates that 70% of these children successfully hide their problems from the outside world. They cannot ask for help—they remain isolated and alone.

  14.  Nacoa's research shows that aggression within the family environment is six times more common when one or both parents suffer from alcoholism. Social Services report that alcohol is a factor in:

    —  40% domestic violence incidents.

    —  40% child protection cases.

    —  74% child mistreatment cases.

    —  In 50% of these cases, no action is taken to address the alcoholism of the parent(s).

  15.  These children may grow up feeling anxious, depressed, emotionally detached and socially isolated. Some may have taken on responsibilities within the family, which means that they do not have time to spend time with their friends, even if they wanted to. Children may have difficulties making friends, which can continue into adulthood. These children are frequently in a self- protective denial of the situation.

  16.  It is common for these children to feel they are the problem and that they are to blame. Nacoa's research indicates that they feel six times more responsible for conflict in the home and are seven times more likely to try to resolve arguments within the family.

  17.  In adulthood some children find themselves drawn to others who have grown up in similar environments. Research also identifies a family "trail" with respect to divorce, finding this is a more likely phenomenon amongst generations of families affected by alcoholism.

  18.  When alcoholism is the family secret, it can be very difficult to talk to anyone outside the home. Talking to someone is often seen as a betrayal of the parent. This may lead to the family becoming socially isolated and can have a negative effect on the way the family functions. There are three unspoken rules in families struggling with parental alcoholism. They are:

    —  Don't talk.

    —  Don't trust.

    —  Don't feel.

  These rules help to preserve the illusion that the family is functioning well and that nothing is wrong.

  19.  As the family progressively adapts to alcoholism, a parallel path develops in family members. Thoughts, feelings and actions become prescribed and proscribed by the effects of alcoholism on the family. The family unconsciously adopts rigid roles as a coping strategy. The family members often become addicted to their roles—seeing them as essential to survival of the family unit.

  20.  These family roles occur in all troubled families and occasionally in healthy families in times of stress. However, in families coping with alcoholism (and the absolute need for secrecy from the outside world) the roles are more rigidly fixed and are played with greater intensity, compulsion and delusion. This work has been adapted from the family systems work of Virginia Satir, illustrated at Appendix 2.


  21.  Nacoa exists to highlight the needs of children growing up in families where parental alcoholism is an issue. These children are often forgotten even when the addicted parent is provided with treatment and support. It recommends that the needs of these children must be addressed as a fundamental part of alcohol policy within the UK. Early intervention and support for all members of the family can make a crucial, perhaps life-saving difference and early intervention can help break the cycle of addiction.

  22.  We believe that teachers and other relevant professionals such as health visitors, early years and youth workers are trained to be alert to the signs of alcoholism within families such as:

    —  A child failing to get excited about an anticipated class trip or event.

    —  A child who acts very differently during alcohol and drugs education from the way he or she normally reacts.

    —  A child gets upset around birthdays and or holidays.

    —  A child wants time alone with the teacher or clings to a teacher or aide—this may represent an effort to secure the nurturing they lack at home.

  23.  Nacoa also believes that there should be a concerted effort by all sectors of society to treat alcohol addiction with the same seriousness as addiction to illegal drugs. Society's image of the stereotypical alcohol-dependant needs to be challenged. For instance the Christmas 2008 episode of "EastEnders" showed a group of alcohol-dependants as "Shakespearean rustics", functioning as light relief to the meatier drama of the rest of the programme. These images belie the fact that behind most alcohol-dependants there are often frightened, lonely and unhappy families.

  24.  Alcoholism is perceived by many as being less important than addiction to illegal drugs. Until there is clear recognition that alcohol is a substance with many of the same dangers and risks associated with illegal drugs, we believe that the problems in terms of ill health, anti-social behaviour and the negative impact on the family will fail to be adequately addressed.

March 2009



Eating Disorders
Children of alcohol dependent parents Control group

15% 3%
Considered Suicide
In trouble with Police
Drug addiction



Motivating feeling Identifying symptomsPay off for individual Pay off for family

Possible price

Alcohol dependant
Chemical useRelief of pain Known/familiar behaviourAddiction

PowerlessnessImportance Self-righteousness ResponsibilityIllness

Child 1 "Hero"Inadequacy

Over achievementAttention

Self-worthCompulsive Drive
Child 2 "Scapegoat"Hurt DelinquencyAttention

Focus away from Parental AlcoholismSelf-Destruction Addiction
Child 3 "Lost child"Loneliness Solitary

Escape Relief—no attention demandedSocial isolation
Child 4 "Mascot"Fear Clowning



Emotional illness


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Prepared 23 April 2009