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To help and protect children of alcoholic parents; role of the children and their care-giver

Abstract: It is important to help and protect children of alcoholic parents. When a child comes to you for help, you must make sure that the child understands that you are ready to listen if he/she wants to talk about something. To be on time and keep promises also signals that you are available and reliable.

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To help and protect children of alcoholic parents; role of the children and their care-giver

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Written by: Lisa Levin, student of psychology at the University of Umea, Sweden, under guidance of
Gunborg Palme, certified psychologist, certified psychotherapist, teacher and tutor in psychotherapy.
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 24 Jul 2008.

How can we help and protect children of alcoholic parents, what is the role of the childen and their care-giver?


In all situations where we meet children who in various ways signal that something is wrong, we must consider that their behavior can be an effect of having a parent who is an alcoholic. If a child is untidy and disorderly, this often has a deeper explanation than "that is just the way he is". The possiblity of an alcoholic parent should exist within the back of your mind.

Many people who work with children are afraid to find out too much if they begin talking with the children about their home situation. They are cautious because they do not want to end up facing difficult choices, for example, having to the social service. The same fear can exist when it comes to talking with the children´s parents. People working with children may be cautious because they do not want to moralize, and instead tread very carefully. One reason for not interfering can be the belief that if you act, you will immediately be responsible for making the child happy or the parent sober. Many people are afraid of making the situation worse for the children or create a conflict with the parents.

People who have problems often search for someone who can help, and they search where the help most likely can be found, for example, at their pre-school or at a hospital. Above all, they are looking for someone they can trust. This person is not always the one who can give him/her the best help, but this person can carefully refer to someone who can. In this way, she/he functions as a model and guide how to find and get help. Being able to do this requires some knowledge about what kind of help the child can get, and above all that you have faith in the possibilities and resources of those you refer the child's problems to.

Whatever you choose to do, when a child comes to you for help, you must make sure that the child understands that you are ready to listen if he/she wants to talk about something. You can do that by listening carefully even when it does not seem particularly important. To be on time and keep promises also signals that you are available and reliable. It´s also important to explain and to talk to the child about everything you choose to do; for example, you should explain why the woman from the social services wants to talk to the child. That way the child gets a possibility to understand that these adults cares about him/her. It is very important not to go behind the child's back. You should carefully tell the child who you have been talking to and who you will talk to. You can also explain that you have met children with the same problem before. That way the child will not feel odd or strange and he/she may sometimes tell you even more.

The most important thing in working with the children from misuse environments is to help them to understand themselves, their reactions and their everyday life. You can do that by confirming their experiences and by helping them putting these experiences in the appropriate context. Through listening you relieve the children of their worries and their feeling of responsibility for their parents and brothers and sisters. It is of great value to the children to be a "reasonable adult" who is there for the children. This can mean that you become a witness, who the child can have an internal dialogue with.

When you work with families with misuse problems it is important to work with a comprehensive understanding. When you are planning your work with the family, three parts should always be considered; the misuse, the child and the parents. Therefore, different authorities have to collaborate to get as good results as possible. You must see all points of view (the parent's and the children's) and use all available expert competences; for example adult psychiatric services, rehabiliation clinics, social services and child and youth psychiatry services. You need to see the family as a system, where all members influence and are influenced by each other. Working with children and parents in misuse families is mostly about daring to see the problem. You must see the child's situation and how well parenting functions. This requires both closeness and distance; closeness in order to get close to both the child's and the parent's pain, and distance in order to see them both at the same time - i.e. seeing the family as a whole.

As a parent, you have a lot to give your child since you are the most important person in his or her life. It is never too late to start over!

  • Help your child to learn what alcohol and misuse means. Tell him/her how the body reacts to alcohol and how alcohol influences emotions and the family. Talk about memory gaps and relapses - as objectively as possible.
  • Explain to the child that it never is the child's fault that the adult drinks.
  • Give the child permission to react. Try to put up with the child's anger, sorrow and disappointment. Explain that these are reasonable reactions to an unreasonable situation. If you are a sober partner, also give the child permission to react to you.
  • Try to permit your child to tell others how the situation is at home. It is good for everybody to have someone to talk to. Also help the child to get in with relatives and friends. Help the child to get in with other children who live in misuse families.

This can be extremely painful. It can seem like a lot to request from a parent who lives in the middle of misuse, but it is important that you do your best. If this is not working, apply for help!

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