By Nicky Adams, programme leader at The Centre for Addiction Treatment Studies, Action on Addiction


There is now a significant amount of research into problematic alcohol use and its impact on children – and one issue that crops up regularly in these studies is the secrecy which surrounds parental drinking.


In 2003 Dr Bryana Kroll described parental substance use in a child’s world as becoming ‘effectively, a family member – the elephant in the living room’.


“In all the studies, secrecy and denial, with the resultant confusion, tensions and anxieties that arose, were issues for the children of substance misusing parents. The dynamic of denial, distortion, confusion and secrecy often resulted in the substance use becoming the ‘central organizing principle’ of the family, with all the family members operating around it, and in relation to it.”


Whilst the addicted parent might be denying the existence of the ‘elephant’, its huge presence can’t be avoided by children - as its unreliable and unpredictable behaviour dominates their lives. Their perception of reality becomes distorted – they know the ‘elephant’ is there but adults seem to be pretending it isn’t.


This lonely, confusing situation can result in children doubting their own judgment and perceptions, and feeling unable to talk about their feelings. Many parents consumed by addiction will not be able to provide the consistent care and attention that children need. They may also be reluctant to seek help in the face of the continuing stigma and shame about addiction. Families in the grip of addiction become increasingly isolated and the risks to children escalate.


Next week (February 10-16, 2019) is Children of Alcoholics Week (COA) – a campaign by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) to ‘break the painful silence and offer hope to vulnerable kids and teens affected by parental addiction’.


NACOA describes addiction as a national health epidemic, which has a ‘staggering’ impact on children. Children growing up with a parent addicted to alcohol or drugs are significantly at risk of developing a range of physical, psychological and behavioural problems including anxiety and depression, alcohol-related accidents, and an increased risk of developing early substance misuse. Parental alcohol dependency can disrupt everyday routines and lead to inconsistent and unpredictable parenting.


Studies by the Department of Work and Pensions in 2014/15 found that about 200,000 children were living with parents with alcohol dependency (DWP, 2017). Other estimates indicate that the figure is much higher. According to a 2016 report by Lorna Templeton and Richard Velleman:


“Approximately 3.4 million children under 16 living with at least one binge-drinking parent, almost a million living with two binge drinkers, and almost half a million living with a lone parent who is also a binge drinker; a further 2.6 million live with a hazardous drinker, 300,000 with a harmful drinker and >700,000 with a dependent drinker”


Action on Addiction is marking the COA week with training events in February and March for our Moving Parents and Children Together programme (M-PACT). M-PACT is a whole family, multi-family, structured brief intervention which aims to improve the wellbeing of children and families affected by parental substance misuse.


Just one of M-PACT’s strengths lies in its evidence base, which shows that family members attending M-PACT programmes reported improvements over time in:

  • Global family functioning - this covers areas such as disrupted communication, strengths and adaptability, and how overwhelmed family members felt by difficulties experienced
  • How family members viewed the severity of the problem
  • How families thought they were managing
  • How families viewed the programme
  • Family coping efficacy – how well family members coped with life challenges.


To find out more or to book onto one of our programmes please contact our experts on 01747 832 015 or email