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  • Writer's pictureFiona Heard

Alcohol Misuse

Previously, I wrote about my granddaughter’s growing awareness of her need to feel secure and loved by her parents whilst venturing out into her world of babyhood, secure in the knowledge that she is loved unconditionally. Time moves on and she is now independently mobile and endlessly curious about how things work knowing she can return safely to her parents, or other trusted carers, for security and love. 


This article considers the possible effects on a child’s development, from an attachment perspective, where one or both parents have a relationship with alcohol that is unhealthy and disruptive of relationships and family life.  My focus is on alcohol misuse as this is widely available in shops and supermarkets and often there is an assumption that for an individual to be considered an “alcoholic” it is implied that they drink morning, noon and night. This is often a problematic characterisation as alcohol misuse within the family system can take many forms, the common denominator being that if alcohol disrupts relationships, affects the family in terms of employment, debt and security of housing then there is an issue to be addressed and acknowledged. In the UK, there is also a cultural ambivalence to what is and is not considered a problematic relationship with alcohol.


A person drinking an alcoholic drink

Briefly, the notion of the importance of attachment to a primary caregiver is to provide the baby and growing child with a sense of safety and a relationship that gives security, love and comfort.  The child internalises this relationship which provides validation, self-esteem and trust.  Where one or both parents are inconsistent in their relationship with the child, this can disrupt the attachment process. A parent who is often impaired by alcohol is unable to provide that level of safety and stability and there may be conflict in the family which has a negative psychological impact on the child in terms of modelling a positive approach to conflict resolution and, most likely, a profound sense of fear or apprehension.  As the focus shifts frequently to the abuser of alcohol, so the growing child may lose their connection with their own needs and may struggle to understand and articulate them.  Low-grade and continuous anxiety may lead to traumatic responses that materialise in childhood and persist into adulthood.  This could include not being able to connect with feelings and emotions and anxiety triggered by perceived chaos or disorganisation. 


Often the effects of alcohol misuse on the family unit are so subtle and unacknowledged that it is difficult to articulate these childhood experiences and their affect. It may not be until adulthood that the ‘child’ becomes aware of the psychological impact of disrupted and inconsistent parenting from one or both parents due to their misuse of alcohol, as within these relationships will be experiences of chaos, insecurity, blame, confusion, an inability to trust, a lack of self-esteem and a profound sense of abandonment.


The counselling process can help repair these broken attachments by starting with validation of the adult child’s experiences and by acknowledging the many feelings and emotions associated with a parent’s alcohol misuse, including secrecy, shame, stigma, anger, anxiety, insecurity and many more. Person-centred counselling can offer a safe and supportive space for individuals to explore these experiences and foster a sense of self and healing, it can offer a safe space to seek and understand the change you are looking for.


Fiona Heard 

July 2024


NB

At the end of this article are several organisations that offer support for families and individuals who have experienced alcohol misuse in childhood.  This is not exhaustive and you may be able to find more resources elsewhere.  Please remember you are not alone.


References

ACA - Adult Children of Alcoholics.

Al-Anon UK | For families & friends of alcoholics.

Alateen - meetings for 12-17 year olds affected by a parents’ drinking.

Coffman, E., & Swank, J. (2021) ‘Attachment Styles and the Family Systems of Individuals Affected by Substance Abuse’, The Family Journal, 29(1) pp 102-108. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480720934487  (Accessed 1 July 2024).

Haugland et al. (2021) “Associations between parental alcohol problems in childhood and adversities during childhood and later adulthood: a cross-sectional study of 28047 adults from the general population.” Substance abuse treatment, prevention, and policy, 16, pp 1-47. 

 10.1186/s13011-021-00384-9  (Accessed 1 July 2024).

Holmes, J (1993), John Bowlby & Attachment Theory, London: Routledge.

White, W., & Savage, B. (2005). ‘All in the family: Alcohol and other drug problems, recovery, advocacy’, Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 23(4), 3-37. 

(Accessed 3 July 2024)

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