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Column Youth drinking problem? Perhaps we should look at ourselves…

The Phoenix Park concert has highlighted the problem of young people and alcohol, writes Fiona Ryan – but the problems caused by parental drinking go largely unremarked.

WORKING FOR AN alcohol charity after an incident like the Phoenix Park concert usually means getting asked about young people and alcohol: Why they drink the way they do.

Certainly the results of the recent European Schools Project report confirm we do have a serious problem with underage drinking. The thing is, we also have a serious problem with adult drinking which never seems to get as much attention. Alcohol-related crime costs us an estimated €1.2 billion a year, but it’s not just the teens that are adding to the crime drinks bill.

Irish teenagers drink marginally less than their European counterparts but when they do drink they drink more. Worryingly, 84 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds in Ireland say they had no problem getting alcohol, 40 per cent have been served in pubs and/or nightclubs, while one in four say they had bought alcohol in the off trade ie off-license – shop, supermarket or specialist retailer. Combine that with cheap alcohol where it is possible to get absolutely hammered for under a tenner – to put it into perspective, one hour worked on minimum wage is €8.65 – and you have a heady cocktail contributing significantly to public order as well as other types of crime.

What is often forgotten is that children and young people are also one of the groups likely to be disproportionately negatively affected by other people’s drinking. This doesn’t make for as good headlines, is complex with no easy solutions and generally makes us all really uncomfortable. Alcohol is our favourite drug and the idea that drinking might actually affect others, beyond identified groups such as problem families or out-of-control teens, is one we don’t really like to think about.

For example, one in seven kids in care is there because of a parental drug or alcohol problem. More than 80 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect are being reported every day to social services – family members with alcohol problems are the most common concern. The Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group a couple of weeks ago raised alcohol as a particular area of concern citing that in the case of the young people who had died of unnatural causes alcohol in the home was the second most prevalent issue in their lives after neglect.

Where’s the plan?

Very few media reported this finding, just as the finding from an ISPCC survey of 10,000 school children showing that one in 11 kids is currently feel their lives is being negatively affected by  a parent’s drinking didn’t precipitate any major commentary either.

When we started campaigning on this issue four years ago we were stunned by the lack of information on children affected by parental alcohol problems. Scotland and Northern Ireland had Hidden Harm action plans, strategies for responding to the complex needs of families with alcohol and/ or drug problems. In the UK, ‘parental alcohol problems’ was named as a factor in over 50% of child protection cases while one in four young carers looking after someone with a substance misuse problem.

Where was our Hidden Harm action plan in a country with one of the highest binge drinking rates in Europe and highest birth rate? Where were our comparative figures? The answer was nowhere.

If you wanted to find out about children affected by parental alcohol problems then you needed to look on bookshelves and not Government policy. Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt once said that worse than any ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood: “the poverty, the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire”.

It’s as if we can only deal with the reality of these children’s lives when, like McCourt, they are adults having triumphed over adversity.  They are safely contained, allowing us a safe distance to rationalise their childhood and explain it away as individualised experience. The notion that there may be over 100,000 children – enough to fill Croke Park – right now at this moment living in fear, weighed down with responsibility for parents or brothers and sisters, witnessing parental conflict or experiencing neglect or abuse is uncomfortable.

‘Grabbed me by the throat’

Try reading this: “I was about 15 or 16 at the time and I showed up as he went on a massive bender… He then grabbed me by the throat and gave me a solid hit to the head which knocked me to the floor. I started crying and he started yelling again.” It might surprise you to know it was written by Calum Best, son of legendary footballer, George Best. The point is not how different Calum Best’s experiences are, but how similar his is to others who have experienced physical abuse from a parent with an alcohol problem.

Just to clarify, not every parent with an alcohol problem is an alcoholic nor does every parent with an alcohol problem neglect or abuse their children. Just to complicate the matter further, not every child welfare issue is a child protection one. What we do need to realise, however, is that there are a significant number of children who are living in a situation where their parent’s drinking is negatively affecting their lives.

In response to the lack of official information on children affected by parental alcohol problems we commissioned a survey of adults asking them about their childhood experiences of parental drinking. Around nine per cent said they had witnessed parental conflict – the equivalent of 90,000 people – while the equivalent of 70,000 had frequently felt afraid or anxious as a child due to parental drinking. What also emerged was an absence of any difference between classes – so much for the Shameless stereotype.

There are signs of hope. The report of the National Substance Misuse Strategy specifically referred to children affected by parental alcohol problems and recommended a Hidden Harm type strategy for the Republic of Ireland while the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has also underlined the need for action in response to our own levels of hidden harm.

So while the focus after last weekend is on children and young people’s own alcohol consumption, let’s also remember the other side – the children who are being harmed by other’s drinking.

They deserve more than to be ignored, or pitied, or congratulated as adults on managing to overcome their difficult childhoods. They deserve our consideration and a response from this State that is willing to take on the challenge of the complexity of their lives, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.

Fiona Ryan is the director of Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues. For more information about Alcohol Action Ireland,

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