The number of children counselled by ChildLine because their parents were drinking too much or taking drugs more than doubled last year – averaging 15 counselling sessions a day to the free, 24-hour helpline.
ChildLine carried out 5,323 sessions with children worried about their parents’ abuse of drink or drugs – up from 2,509 the previous year. Most of the children counselled were 12 to 15 years old, although one in 10 were of primary school age.
The figures contrast with a long-term fall in violent crime in England and Wales, thought to be partially influenced by the rising cost of alcohol.3 Research is needed to explain the sudden increase but it would appear that more children are witnessing drunken behaviour and experiencing violence at home, or they are more aware that help is available.
Many children told ChildLine that they lived in fear of their parents’ anger, with one in six saying they’d been physically hurt by their mum or dad when they were under the influence. Some reported living in dirty and even dangerous surroundings, lacking essentials because money was frittered on alcohol or drugs.
Children spoke of feeling helpless and not knowing where to go for support. 19 per cent said the stress of their situation had led to them feeling depressed, self-harming, or having suicidal thoughts.
One child told ChildLine: “My dad has been drinking and taking drugs a lot recently – it’s ruining our family. He gets angry when he has been drinking so he says nasty things to us like we are stupid and worthless. I’m finding it difficult to deal with because underneath it all I know he’s a really good dad.” 4
Sue Minto, Head of ChildLine, said: “These shocking ChildLine statistics are sadly only one small piece of the jigsaw. Official estimates are that more than 250,000 children in the UK have parents with drug problems, and three in 10 children live with at least one binge-drinking parent.
“It’s heart-breaking that so many young people struggle alone because they do not know where to go for help or are unsure of what might happen if they speak to someone. They may fear being taken away from their families by social services and put into care and believe that they are protecting their family by keeping quiet.
“Some children tell us their parents are under stress and it may be that they are using drink and drugs to blot out worries about jobs, money or housing issues. But whatever the reasons behind the rise, it’s vital that anyone who knows a parent with drink or drug problems takes action to get that family help so that their children are protected.”
Children can seek help by contacting ChildLine on 0800 1111 or at Adults with concerns about a child should call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.
The NSPCC is using public donations to fund specific services for families affected by drug and alcohol problems and is building an evidence base to help statutory services better meet the needs of children growing up in such circumstances.5 One NSPCC programme, FEDUP, helps parents understand and reduce the impact of their behaviour and provides a safe space for children aged between five and 12 to talk about their feelings.