Below are some questions young people often have about alcohol and the effects on the family. If you have a question that isn’t listed, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For questions about contacting the Nacoa helpline, see Calling the helpline.
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. Some people like the taste or how it makes them feel. They may drink at parties and other social events, often with family and friends. They may drink to ‘fit in’ or through peer pressure. Some people drink 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 people’s mood and behaviour. Although alcohol is a depressant, at low doses it can make 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 may end up intoxicated without intending to get drunk. Alcohol can cause memory blackouts, meaning that people 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, step-parent, grandparent, or carer’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. People who are dependent on alcohol have a compulsion to drink, spend increasing amounts of time drinking, thinking about drinking and recovering from drinking, with unsuccessful attempts to stop or cut down. They can become physically dependent on alcohol, needing to drink to get rid of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. When people are physically dependent on alcohol, it can be dangerous to stop drinking suddenly. People usually need help to tackle their problem drinking.
How does my mum/dad manage to drink all day every day?
People can build up a tolerance to alcohol, meaning they need to drink more to get the same effect. When they haven’t had a drink, they can experience anxiety, shaking, sweating and seizures (fits). This is known as withdrawal. These feelings can be relieved by drinking again. This can lead to a vicious cycle where people need to drink more in order to feel ‘normal’. 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, something that helps them to function normally in their everyday life. 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 and can contribute to accidents and other injuries. Drinking too much can weaken the immune system so heavy drinkers can’t always fight off infections. Drinking can also lead to numerous health problems, including liver disease, heart disease, many cancers, and diabetes. Alcoholism can affect how you feel about yourself and sometimes leads to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
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, it takes priority over everything, even those they love. Often the person drinking doesn’t realise they have a problem. Even if they become aware something is wrong, they may not think it has anything to do with their drinking. Again, this is where denial comes in. They will often find ways to excuse or justify their behaviour. They may blame other people, or other problems in their life.
It’s difficult to acknowledge when our behaviour hurts others, and it’s the same for people with drink problems. If the drinker does see the effect it is having on the family, he/she may drink more in order to cope with the guilt and shame. It can be very hard for family members to see their parent(s) continue to drink when it’s hurting them and everyone around them, e.g. causing health, financial and relationship problems. 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 everyone with a drink problem dies but, sadly, sometimes this can happen. This can be very worrying for family members, particularly for young people. The idea of a parent dying is scary for everyone, and when alcohol is involved it can bring up a huge range of difficult feelings. Sometimes people feel it would be better if their parent did die as it would end their suffering, but then feel guilty for having these thoughts. Feelings of abandonment, anger, relief, blame, guilt and many other emotions may be present. When the family is unable to talk openly about issues, it can make it harder for them to support each other at difficult times. The death of a parent with alcohol problems may also create tension for the rest of the family. If this has happened to you, you may find it helpful to talk to Nacoa and 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. Some people become physically and/or psychologically dependent on alcohol and find, without realising, that they need to drink. This happens over a period of time, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. Their obsession with alcohol is very powerful and can become more important than everything else in the drinker’s life. There are many 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 a part – genes, reaction to problems, learned behaviour, changes in the brain and more – but there is no definitive answer at this moment.
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 help 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 family members to accept but talking to the doctor can still be helpful to find support for yourself. 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 my parent from drinking?
When someone has an alcohol problem, they have lost control over their drinking. Denial is a common feature and the drinker may not even realise they have a problem. There is help available, but they have to accept they have a problem and want to stop. Your parent’s behaviour is not your fault and you can’t control their drinking. Look after yourself and avoid getting into an argument when they are drinking. You can feel better whether your parent continues to drink or not. Try talking to someone you trust, like a friend, relative, teacher or Nacoa.
What can I do to help my parent?
Spend some time finding out about alcoholism. You don’t need be to an expert, but having an understanding can help you to feel more prepared.
You could also find out about what’s available for people with alcohol problems so if your parent wants to stop drinking, you have some information ready. Remember, it is not your responsibility to make them stop or find help but if it can be comforting to know what’s available. Nacoa will happily research this for you. However, please remember that it has to be the drinker’s decision to accept help and try not to expect instant changes. For more information, click here.
What else can I do?
To be there for other people, it is crucial that we look after ourselves. 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 feel better. Get support for yourself: talk to a friend, relative or teacher you trust or contact the Nacoa helpline. You cannot change your 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 my parent’s drinking?
Try talking when they are least likely to have been drinking and you are in a safe place. Try not to judge them, and remember to focus on how you are feeling, rather than their actions. Please don’t expect too much and remember how powerful denial can be; the drinker often believes that alcohol is the solution to problems and does not 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 parents who drink hazardously. Remember that you can still be affected even if you are not living in the same house or if your parent is no longer drinking. Painful memories do not often just disappear and sometimes the effects continue in later life; people at all stages of their lives can be affected by parental alcoholism.
How do parental alcohol problems affect the family?
Alcohol problems do not only affect the person drinking, but also everyone around them, including family and friends. As the alcohol-dependent parent organises his/her 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.
Children of alcoholics are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression and thoughts of suicide, and sometimes use drink, drugs and addictive behaviours, such as eating disorders, in order to cope. Despite this, many grow up to lead happy and healthy lives. Awareness of the problem and feeling supported can make a huge difference.
My parent had/has a drink problem; does that mean I will too?
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 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 follow 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 aware that they may not know if/when they cross the line into 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 parent(s) but being aware of all the risks, looking after yourself and adopting healthy ways to cope, e.g. talking to someone you trust about your worries, can help.
Why didn’t/doesn’t my mum/dad love me enough to stop drinking?
When people become dependent on alcohol, they often see drinking as the solution to their 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. Young people 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 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. A number of factors play a part – a history of alcoholism in the family, how we deal with life’s challenges, 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. Young people can often feel guilty and ashamed that they have not been able to help their parent to stop drinking, feeling in some way that they have caused it. Please be assured that someone else’s drinking is not your fault; you did not cause it and you can’t control it. Parents sometimes blame children, and everyone else, for their drinking. 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 someone has a drink problem, families often keep it a secret and try to hide it from the outside world. The family rules don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel keep problems hidden in an effort to keep the family together and ‘safe’. These family rules develop because parents do not know how to resolve problems in any way other than to ignore them. Alcoholism is often described as ‘the hidden suffering in families’. ‘The elephant in the room’ has become a common description for something that people know but avoid talking about, e.g. drinking. 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. Some young people may be more aware of what’s happening but choose not to be involved in family life, 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 keeps their problems hidden.
Why didn’t/doesn’t anyone help me or notice what was/is going on?
Families often want to keep problems to themselves and adopt ‘a conspiracy of silence’ meaning they don’t talk about what is going on. This makes it difficult for other people to offer support, or even realise there is a problem, especially when drinking is done secretly and parents work together to maintain the family image.
If people do notice, they may not know what to say or do. Others may approach the subject but are met with a wall of silence or denial. As alcoholism often runs in families, everyone in the social circle may consider drinking as normal.
Although problems with alcohol are becoming more widely acknowledged, alcoholism and addiction are generally not well understood. 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 into trouble or splitting up the family.
Sadly, when no one speaks up or offers help, young people 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 that 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 up to now, you can talk to one of Nacoa’s volunteer helpline counsellors 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, teacher, 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 and ashamed. Sharing your thoughts and feelings can help you realise that you have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about and that your parents’ problems are not your fault.
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 willing to talk, provide information – perhaps a Nacoa leaflet – so they know there is help and support when they want it. Nacoa will happily find 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 this sometimes makes it 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 alcoholism 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.
How can I cope with other people who criticise my parent(s)?
Although problems with alcohol are becoming more widely acknowledged, alcoholism and addiction are generally not well understood. People are sometimes quick to judge, especially when they have no first-hand knowledge of how the whole family is affected or why your parent can’t just stop.
It is not your job to fight your parents’ battles even though it may be hard for you not to defend them. If the person is important in your life, direct them to this website or have information – perhaps a Nacoa leaflet – available. Although you may not have spoken to anyone before, today you can talk to one of our volunteer helpline counsellors who understand the problem and who you can trust. Today you are not alone – we can help you to cope with all sorts of problems.
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. Contact Nacoa and speak to one of our trained volunteer helpline counsellors, who understand what it can be like when a parent has 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. We can help you to explore things that you enjoy which take you out of the situation and your worries for a while.
Where can I read about other people’s experiences?
The Experiences section includes the stories of other young people affected by their parent’s drinking. There are also suggestions of books and videos you may find helpful in the Books and videos section.
Where can I meet other people living with parental alcoholism?
Meeting other people who have been through similar situations can be very helpful. The Help & advice section gives information about organisations that help people affected by someone else’s drinking.