Frequently asked questions

Questions we are most asked on the helpline.

Frequently asked questions

Questions we are most asked on the helpline.


Below are some frequently asked questions about alcohol problems and the effects on the family. If you have a question that isn’t listed,

For questions about contacting the Nacoa helpline see Helpline in the About section. If you are worried about someone else who is affected by their parent’s drinking, you may also find it helpful to look at Concerned others & professionals.

Why do people drink alcohol (even when it makes them ill, cry, angry, do silly things)?

People have drunk alcoholic drinks for thousands of years. There are many reasons why people drink: they like the taste or effect, as part of social activities such as celebrations, wanting to fit in, peer pressure, or trying to get drunk or ‘out of it’. Alcohol is a drug containing ethanol, made from fermenting fruit or grains. Alcohol affects the brain and nervous system, altering mood and behaviour. Although alcohol is a depressant, at low doses it can induce feelings of euphoria, making you feel ‘high’, increasing confidence and reducing anxiety.

Some people use alcohol as a way of unwinding or to try and cope with stresses such as bereavement or financial/job/relationship problems. In the short term alcohol can sometimes ‘take the edge’ off problems and make things seem easier. Sometimes people do not realise how much they have drunk, and so may end up intoxicated without intending to get drunk. Alcohol can cause memory blackouts, meaning that people often don’t remember silly, embarrassing or other things they have done when drinking. Often people continue to drink because, for them, the positive feelings that come with it outweigh any negative effects, such as being sick or getting a hangover.

When does someone have a problem with drink? Is my parent an alcoholic?

If you feel affected by someone else’s drinking, there could well be a problem. The following questions look at what alcoholism is and why people continue to drink even when it’s affecting their lives and those around them. You may also find it helpful to look at our Other Person Diagnosis sheet. Remember that Nacoa is here for everyone affected by their parent’s drinking.We will focus on the impact it is having on you, whether they’ve been diagnosed as having a problem or not.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is like an illness where people have lost control over their drinking; they may set out to have one or two drinks and end up drinking more than they intended. Alcohol abuse or dependence can be characterised by a compulsion to drink, spending increasing amounts of time drinking, thinking about drinking and recovering from drinking, and unsuccessful attempts to stop or cut down. People suffering from alcohol problems can become physically dependent on alcohol, needing to drink to get rid of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. People usually need help to tackle their problem drinking. When people are physically dependent on alcohol, it can be dangerous to stop drinking suddenly. For more information about alcoholism, click here.

How does my mum/dad manage to drink all day every day?

People can build up tolerance to alcohol and need to drink more to get the same effect. This can be coupled with withdrawal symptoms when they haven’t had a drink, including anxiety, shaking, sweating and seizures, which can be relieved by drinking alcohol. This can lead to a vicious cycle where people need to drink more in order to ‘function’. At this point people have often developed a physical dependence on alcohol.

What is denial?

Denial often goes hand in hand with addiction and is not the same as lying. The drinker believes that alcohol is the solution to problems and doesn’t see their drinking as problematic. They may blame other people for their drinking, and will often find ways to excuse their behaviour. Denial can spread into all areas of life as a way of coping and hiding the problem from him/herself and others. Sometimes family members can also be in denial as a way of coping; pretending the problem doesn’t exist and/or keeping it hidden from the outside world.

Can drinking too much be harmful?

Too much alcohol can be harmful to the body and brain. Alcohol can contribute to accidents and other injuries. A high level of alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many health problems, including liver disease, heart disease, many cancers, pancreatitis and diabetes. Drinking too much can also weaken the immune system, making chronic drinkers more susceptible to diseases like pneumonia. Alcoholism can have a significant impact on mental health, with people who are dependent on alcohol being at a greater risk of suicide.

Why does my parent continue to drink when they know the harm it is causing?

When someone has an alcohol problem, they continue to drink even when it is having a negative effect on their lives, their health, and those around them. When people become dependent on alcohol or another substance, it takes priority over all else, even those they love. Often the person drinking doesn’t realise they have a problem. Even if they become aware something is wrong, they often do not see drinking as part of the problem. Again, this is where denial comes in. They might try and blame other people for their drinking or other problems in their life. They will often find ways to justify or excuse their behaviour.

It’s difficult for all of us to acknowledge any negative effects our behaviour has on our families and it’s the same for people with drink problems. When negative effects are seen, he/she may drink more in order to cope with the additional guilt and shame. It can be very hard for family members to see their parent(s) continue to drink when it’s negatively affecting them and everyone around them, e.g. causing health, financial and relationship problems etc. It’s OK to love your parent whilst hating the drinking and the ways it affects their behaviour.

My parent has a drink problem, are they going to die?

Not all problem drinkers die from drinking but sadly, for some, alcohol use can sometimes be fatal. Of course this is very worrying for family members, particularly their children, and when alcohol is involved it can bring up a huge range of difficult feelings. Some feel it would be better for the drinker to die as it would end their suffering, but then feel guilty for having these thoughts. Others feel they have lost their parent already, but may have to grieve for a second time when their parent dies. Although it is natural for a parent to die before their children, when alcohol is involved, the complexity and depth of grief can feel insurmountable. Feelings of abandonment, anger, relief, blame, guilt and many other emotions may be present. When the family has been unable to talk about challenging issues they may feel totally unprepared and left with many unanswered questions. The death of a parent with alcohol problems may also create tension between surviving family members. If this has happened to you, you may find it helpful to read our Coping with the Death of a Parent information sheet.

Why do people become alcoholics?

Alcoholism can affect people of all ages and from all walks of life. People don’t set out to have a drink problem. It can creep up on them over a period of time, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. Some people become physically and/or psychologically dependent on alcohol and find, without realising, that they need to drink. This obsession with alcohol is very powerful and can take precedence over everything else in the drinkers’ life. There are many research studies which look at the reason why some people become dependent on drink and others don’t, there are a variety of factors that play their part – genetic, reaction to life’s stressors, learned behaviour, changes in brain function and more – but there is no definitive answer at this moment in time.

Is there a cure for alcoholism?

Alcoholism is treatable – people can find help for their drink problems and go on to live healthy lives. For some people this is possible by not drinking alcohol at all. This is often referred to as ‘being in recovery’. The person in recovery will usually have to work at staying sober and remaining free of alcohol or other addictive substances and behaviours. Some people do this with the aid of self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Some people need medical help and go into treatment or rehab where their physical and psychological dependence is addressed over a series of weeks, months and sometimes years. Some rehab centres offer a residential programme, followed by supported living before returning to the family. Others offer a daily programme where patients continue to live at home. Funding for treatment is sometimes available from the local authority following a referral by the GP. Other treatment programmes are fee-based. Nacoa will happily research rehab and treatment centres so you have an idea of what might be available for your parent(s).

Why can’t our doctor do anything about it?

Doctors can offer advice and suggestions but, the person with the drink problem has to accept that they have a problem and want help. No one can be forced into treatment without their consent. This may be difficult for the family to accept but talking to the GP can still be helpful to find sources of support for you. For information on where people can get help for their drinking, when they are ready and willing, see Help for People with Alcohol Problems.

Should I hide, pour away or water down their alcohol?

Please remember that you can’t control someone else’s drinking. Pouring away, watering down, or hiding alcohol may make things worse, and the person may become angry, aggressive or more secretive.

How can I stop someone from drinking?

When someone has an alcohol problem, they have lost control over their drinking. Denial is a common feature and someone who has a drink problem may not even realise it. Help is available, but the person drinking has to accept they have a problem and want to stop. It has to be their choice to access help when they are ready. Your parent’s behaviour is not your fault and you can’t control their drinking. Look after yourself and avoid getting into an argument with your parent when they are drinking. Find support for you and make your wellbeing the main priority.

What can I do to help my parent?

Spend some time finding out about alcoholism. You don’t need be to an expert. Being there and caring can help, but it may be beneficial to have an understanding of alcoholism as an illness where control over drinking has been lost. A good place to look is our Information page.

You could also find out about support available for people with alcohol problems so that, if your parent becomes receptive to the idea of seeking help for their drinking, you have information to hand. Nacoa will happily research relevant sources of support. However, please remember that it has to be the drinker’s decision to access help; try not to expect instant changes. For more information click here.

What else can I do?

In order to be there for other people, it is crucial that we look after ourselves first. Remember you are important too. Find time for things that you enjoy. Sometimes worries can take over, and taking a break, even if just for a short while, can help you de-stress and gain perspective. Get support for yourself: talk to a friend or relative you trust; contact the Nacoa helpline; or go along to a support group for family members affected by their loved one’s alcoholism. You cannot change you parent’s behaviour but you can change how you feel about yourself. It is sometimes useful for the drinker to see the consequences of his/her behaviour so consider not covering up or clearing up for them. This can also be less exhausting for you; you are not responsible for how someone else behaves.

How can I broach the topic of a friend or relative’s drinking?

Try talking when they are least likely to have been drinking and you are in a safe/appropriate place. Try not to judge or be confrontational. Keep feelings in the first person and focus on how you feel. Please don’t expect too much and remember how powerful denial can be; the drinker believes that alcohol is the solution to problems and often doesn’t see their drinking as problematic. For suggestions see Talking to Someone About Their Drinking.

How many people are affected by their parents’ drinking?

Research suggests that 1 in 5 children in the UK are currently living with a parent who drinks hazardously. The effects of parental alcohol misuse don’t just disappear once children reach 18 or move away from home. Millions of adults in the UK are still being affected by their parents’ drinking or the knock-on effects of growing up in a home where alcohol was a problem. For more information about the scale of the problem see Research.

How do parental alcohol problems affect the family?

Alcohol problems do not only affect the person drinking, but also everyone around them, including family, friends and colleagues. As the alcohol-dependent parent organises their life around alcohol, the family also focuses on the drinking; this can leave other family members, particularly children, feeling unimportant and confused. Living with alcoholism can be chaotic and lead to other problems. Witnessing violence, mood swings, and unpredictable behaviour often leads to feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame. Families affected by alcohol problems are also more likely to experience a shortage of money, as alcohol becomes the priority over basic needs.

Children of alcoholics are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression and consider suicide; often turning to drink, drugs and addictive behaviours, such as eating disorders, in order to cope. The effects can persist into adulthood. Despite this many grow up to lead happy and healthy lives. Awareness of the problem and feeling supported can make a huge difference. For more information about how alcoholism affects the family, click here.

My parent had/has a drink problem; does that mean I will too?

The development of alcoholism depends on a complex mixture of genetic and environmental factors. Work by geneticists suggests that genes do play an important role by affecting processes in the body and brain that interact with one another and with an individual’s life experience to produce protection or susceptibility. It’s also thought that alcohol use at an early age may increase the risk of alcohol dependence and that people who have a family history of alcoholism are more likely to begin drinking at an earlier age than average.

Nacoa’s research study suggests that people who grew up with parental alcoholism are almost three times as likely to develop a problem with alcohol themselves compared to the general population. This does not mean that they will end up drinking like their parents but that they are more likely to do so if they perpetuate the don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel rules which promote drinking or ignoring problems (denial) as a way to cope with life’s challenges.

People who grew up with parental drinking often report an uneasy relationship with alcohol and are acutely aware that they may not know if/when they cross the line between controlled and uncontrolled drinking. Some people make a decision not to drink alcohol at all whilst others are able to drink socially. Many people worry they will turn out like their parents but being aware of all the risk factors (genetic and environmental), looking after yourself and adopting healthy ways to cope, e.g. talking to someone you trust about your worries, can help.

How does my mum/dad manage to drink all day every day?

People can build up tolerance to alcohol and need to drink more to get the same effect. This can be coupled with withdrawal symptoms when they haven’t had a drink, including anxiety, shaking, sweating and seizures, which can be relieved by drinking alcohol. This can lead to a vicious cycle where people need to drink more in order to ‘function’. At this point people have often developed a physical dependence on alcohol.

Why didn’t my mum/dad love me enough to stop drinking?

When people become dependent on alcohol, they often see drinking as the solution to problems and need alcohol to cope with everyday life. Alcoholism is not about a lack of love – for the alcoholic, drinking becomes their priority above all else – even those they care about. Children sometimes feel to blame for their parent’s drinking or feel they have in some way caused it. Remember, someone else’s behaviour is never your fault.

Why do I feel guilty about someone’s drinking?

This is quite normal. Children are sometimes scapegoated by their parent who may blame everyone else for their drinking. Children often feel guilty and ashamed that they have not been able to help their parent to stop drinking and can feel they have in some way caused it. Please be assured that someone else’s drinking is never your fault, you did not cause it and you can’t control it.

Why has this happened to me? Have I done something to deserve it? Is it my fault?

You do not deserve it and it isn’t your fault. Alcoholism affects people of all ages and all walks of life. There are many research studies which look at the reason why some people become dependent on drink and others don’t, there are a variety of factors that play their part – genetic, reaction to life’s stressors, learned behaviour, changes in brain function and more. However, there is no definitive reason why people drink and there is no reason why this has happened to you. Please be assured that someone else’s drinking is not your fault; you did not cause it and you can’t control it. You had no control over the problem starting and you can’t make it stop. Only your parent(s) can take responsibility for their behaviour; but you can look after you. For more information click here.

Why didn’t/doesn’t anyone talk about it?

When alcoholism is the family secret, the family rules don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel develop to keep problems hidden from the outside world, in an effort to keep the family together and ‘safe’. This is not always a conscious choice but a reaction to the inability of parents to resolve problems in any other way than to ignore them. ‘The elephant in the room’ has become a common description for something that people know but prefer not to mention, e.g. drinking which is often described as ‘the hidden suffering in families’ and is likely to remain so until we dismantle the stigma associated with drinking and drug use. Not all members of the family are as able as others to ignore or deny the problems. However, to speak out can sometimes feel like family betrayal or lead to isolation within the family unit. Some children may be more aware of what’s happening but choose to opt out of family life, so far as possible, in order to look after themselves in the only way they know. There are many reasons why families adopt ‘a conspiracy of silence’, mostly because it works keeping the family’s problems hidden, avoiding social stigma and the consequences of being confronted about what are considered to be deeply shameful problems.

Why didn’t anyone help me/notice what was going on?

When families want to keep their problems to themselves and adopt ‘a conspiracy of silence’ it is difficult for people to intervene or to offer help and support; especially when drinking is done secretly and parents (and sometimes children) work together to maintain a ‘looking good’ family image. In some cases people may have been simply unable to see there was a problem as it was so well hidden.

When families are less able to hide their problems, people may not have known what to say or do. Others may have approached the subject but were met with a wall of silence or denial. As alcoholism runs in families, everyone in the social circle may consider drinking as normal. Despite its prevalence in our society, alcoholism and addiction are generally not well understood and we receive little education or information on the subject. People with no personal experience may not understand how the whole family is affected and think it would be too difficult a subject to approach and should be left to an expert; they may fear getting the parents in trouble or splitting up the family.

Sadly when no one speaks up or offers help, children often feel they are the only ones going through these sorts of difficulties, leaving them feeling unnoticed, unimportant, isolated and alone. Some feel as though they are crazy or they are the problem because no one else appears to see what’s happening to their family. Although there may have been no one to talk to as children, there are people you can talk to now who understand the problem and who you can trust. Today you are not alone.

How can I cope with an alcoholic parent?

Find someone you can talk to who understands the problem. Talk to someone you trust about how you feel and what you are going through. This could be a family member, friend, counsellor etc. or an organisation like Nacoa. Talking about your feelings is not being disloyal to your family and can help you feel less alone. Sometimes people feel that they are to blame for their parent’s drinking and feel guilty or ashamed. Sharing your thoughts and feelings can help you to realise that it is not your fault and help you cope.

Try to remember to do things that you enjoy and take yourself out of the situation for a while. Living with an alcoholic can be stressful so looking after you is really important. There are people and places that can help. For more information, click here.

What can I do to help my brothers and sisters?

Help them to find someone to talk to who understands the problem, or if they are not ready or unwilling to talk, provide information – perhaps a Nacoa leaflet – so they know there is help and support when they want it. Nacoa will happily research sources of help and support for you to pass on. Remember they may think that talking about family problems is being disloyal and feel guilty and ashamed of things which are not their fault. It is not always easy to break the ‘don’t talk’ family rule and sometimes more difficult for family members to support each other.

If talking about the problem is not an option, you could do things together that you enjoy and take yourselves out of the situation for a while. Living with an alcoholic can be stressful for all members of the family, although not everyone experiences this in the same way, so looking after yourself is really important. There are people and places that can help. For more information, click here.

What can I do to feel better?

Look after yourself. Remember you can’t control someone else’s drinking and you certainly didn’t cause it. Speak to someone you trust who understands the problem. You could contact Nacoa and speak to one of our trained volunteer helpline counsellors, who understand what it can be like when a parent has, or has had, an alcohol problem. We will listen without judging and help you to find new ways to cope. You cannot change your parent’s behaviour but you can change how you feel about yourself. Find time for things that you enjoy. Sometimes worries can take over, and taking a break, even if just for a short while, can help you de-stress and gain perspective.

Where can I read about others in similar situations?

The Experiences section includes experiences submitted by other visitors who have been affected by their parent’s drinking. There are also suggestions of books and videos you may find helpful in our Books and videos section.

Where can I meet others in similar circumstances?

Meeting others who have been through similar situations can be very therapeutic. The Help & advice section gives information about organisations that help people affected by someone else’s drinking.

Could I be codependent? What is codependency?

Codependency is a condition that can result from adapting to dysfunction, such as alcoholism, in the family. Symptoms include development of unhealthy defences to deal with emotional pain; an inability to identify or express feelings; difficulty in intimate relationships; and denial or minimisation of problems. Symptoms are usually disguised so codependent people may appear to be happy and successful on the outside whilst experiencing an emptiness or inadequacy on the inside. For more information see Introduction to Codependency.

How can I bring up my children differently?

Reading this means that you are doing things differently. Some people believe that if they parent their children in an opposite way to the way they were brought up, that all will be well. This is not necessarily true and can be linked to black and white thinking. However, breaking the ‘don’t talk’ rule is possibly the most fundamentally crucial change you can make. Talk openly and honestly to your children and listen to them. Listening, spending time with them, taking account of their thoughts and feelings will ensure they have a safe, trustworthy person in their lives who they can talk to about both the positive and negative elements of their everyday lives. Talking and trusting are ways to avoid bottled up feelings which give rise to so many physical and emotional problems. This is true for both children and parents, who need to be supported too.

If you avoid talking about drinking and other difficult topics, you will repeat the ‘elephant in the room’ scenario. Talk about their grandparent’s drinking and the effect it had on you in a safe and age appropriate way. If they know you are supported by another adult, they will not feel the need to look after you or feel responsible for your feelings. Tell them you want to do things differently and ask for their input.

Sometimes a resolve to do things differently is not as easy as it sounds and possibly the best thing you can do for your children is to get help for yourself. Talking about problems, externalising them in a safe place provides a canvas on which to plan a more positive future. It is so much easier to change if we know specifically what we want to change. Spending time looking after yourself is an investment in your children.

You are not alone

Remember the Six "C"s

I didn’t cause it
I can’t control it
I can’t cure it
I can take care of myself
I can communicate my feelings
I can make healthy choices

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