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More than 100 children a week contact Childline with worries about their parents' drinking or drug use

Worries about parental alcohol or drug use account for just under one third of all calls from children to Childline, the helpline provided by the NSPCC, concerning parental behaviour. Some of the calls are from children as young as five years old.

The figures are derived from an analysis of the calls made to the helpline in the year between April 2008 and March 2009. In the year, 4,028 children (21% of all callers [18,983] with a concern about a significant other) were counselled by ChildLine with concerns about their parents’ alcohol misuse. This number consisted of 2,867 girls and 1,161 boys. Alcohol problems were the largest concern mentioned regarding parents.

In addition, 2,284 children (12% of all callers about a parental drug misuse concern) were counselled by ChildLine with concerns about their parents’ drug misuse. This number consisted of 1,639 girls and 645 boys.

Calls to ChildLine from children who talked about parental alcohol and drug misuse represent 4 per cent of all (156,729) children counselled by ChildLine. Alcohol and drug concerns make up 33% of the total concerns given by children for their parents.

Altogether, the NSPCC helpline received more than 150,000 calls during the year. Although concerns about parental drug and alcohol use made up only a small percentage of them, the head of ChildLine, Sue Minto, said: “The fall-out from parental drug and alcohol abuse is a ticking timebomb in many children’s lives. It is vital these children are helped before lasting damage occurs.”

Ms Minto said that some children told ChildLine about their parents’ severe mood swings, episodes of violence and emotional instability.

Some said their parents were regularly sick and that caring for them had affected their schooling, or prevented them forming friendships with other children.

Ms Minto added that children affected by parental alcohol and drug problems were at more risk of harm than other children and ways needed to be found of helping them sooner.

“But we must also remember they can be fiercely protective of their parents,” she added.

“One young girl’s first comment to the ChildLine counsellor was: ‘I don’t want anything to happen to my mother’.”

Key findings

Children who were counselled by ChildLine about their parents’ alcohol and drug misuse often also talked about their experiences of physical abuse, family relationship problems, neglect and sexual abuse.

Children talked about being worried, frightened and confused by their parents’ alcohol and drug misuse.

Children often took on a caring role and saw it as their responsibility to solve their parents’ alcohol and drug misuse problems.

Throughout this report we use the terms “parents” and “parental” interchangeably to mean either/both parent(s), carers and others with parental responsibility. This person is usually the child’s mother or father.

Almost twice the number of children were counselled by ChildLine about their parents’ alcohol misuse than about drug misuse.

Children who were cared for by habitual alcohol or drug users could be inducted to rely on alcohol and drugs in order to cope with life’s challenges.

Children talking to ChildLine about parental alcohol and drug misuse.

How children describe the problems:

“My mum drinks all the time and leaves me alone lots of times. I feel scared and lonely. I look after my mum when she drinks. I put her to bed. Mum shouts and hits me; she is worse on a Friday. I don’t want to feel pain. I want to die.” (Angel, aged 10)

“My mum and dad don’t feed me. I have to steal money from people so I can get food. When I cry, Mum and Dad hit me. They are drinking all the time. I can’t tell anyone because I am scared my mum and dad might do something and hit me.” (Jonathan, aged 10)

“I live with my mum and her boyfriend. They both take drugs. I am worried they might die. My mum makes tea and then smokes drugs. She shouts at me. I feed my baby sister. I see my dad every two months and he takes drugs.” (Sarah, age unknown)

“I want to run away from home. Both my parents use drugs and alcohol and they fight. My mum brings men home all the time. I really hate their way of living and would like to get away. I did try to get away with my sister but my sister is partly disabled so she couldn’t keep up and we came back home. I am really unhappy to be left alone in the house all night.” (Sanjay, aged 14)