What is it like to grow up in an alcoholic family, in which one or both parents are dependent on or misuse alcohol?
This was the question of a study conducted by Swedish researchers Anneli Silvén Hagströma and Ulla Forinder. Because children who experience parental alcoholism tend not to disclose their circumstances for fear of shame and stigma, their urgent need for help often goes undetected—and their voices go unheard.
Given this secrecy, the investigators wanted to better understand their experience, with a particular interest in what kinds of support they need and the coping strategies they use.
In order to pursue this inquiry, Hagströma and Forinder analyzed the narratives of 19 children between the ages of six and eleven. The participants were enrolled in a psycho-educational program in the 1990s for youngsters living with parents who struggled with alcohol (these data were part of a longitudinal study).
There were a series of three interviews. At the initial interview, just after the program concluded, researchers prompted the children by asking: “Tell me the story of your life.” The interviewers encouraged them to reflect on their various challenges, including their parent’s drinking, neglect, and violence. The children were also interviewed a second time between two and six years later, and then a third time between nine and thirteen years after the program ended.
The results were striking. All of the children described how they understood—even as young as age five—that their alcohol-dependent parent's behavior changed when they drank, sometimes in conjunction with drugs. A picture of the parent’s "two faces" emerged, contrasting "the sober parent" with "the drunk parent."
Hagströma and Forinder's findings also revealed two major narrative positions. On the one hand, the children framed themselves as vulnerable victims forced to navigate their parent’s alcoholism, which often encompassed severe neglect, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. They described feeling powerless, without resources to cope with distress and risk, and a desperate need for protection and care.
On the other hand, the children also framed themselves as competent agents who developed effective coping strategies, such as trying to reduce their parent’s drinking and assuming the role of a "young carer." A selective overview of Hagströma and Forinder’s results, broken down between Vulnerable Victim and Competent Agent, is provided below.
The Vulnerable Victim
In their life stories, the children understood themselves to be vulnerable victims. Parental alcoholism gave rise to various harmful experiences, including neglect of basic needs, verbal and physical violence, and sexual abuse by a family member. The participants struggled with feelings of abandonment, sadness and anger for lack of love and care, and anxiety and distress in dealing with the "two faces" of the alcoholic parent. Neglect and violence were most salient, and are described further below.
Experiences of parental neglect:
All the narratives revealed insufficient caretaking while the parents were under the influence of alcohol. A participant named Per (age 22), for example, recalled that his family never ate at regular times—it could be 5 am or well into the night. He recounted his life as fragmented and isolated:
“I had a childhood friend… who I spent lots of time with. Her parents were alcoholics too. We hung out outside late at night. There were no rules… about what we couldn’t do. My dad sat with his friends and such… They often came to our house too, when I was there. You saw them sitting there drinking, you sat with them… It’s no fun for a small child to sit like that. I got to light my dad’s cigarettes… They fought and such and you had to listen to it… there were quarrels, fist fights, and tumult all the time.”
Experiences of violence:
Almost half of the children’s life stories referenced verbal and physical violence. The violent parent was described as hypercritical, intimidating, and prone to violence against them or other family members. Consider Eva’s (age 7) recollection:
“When mom comes into my room and says that I must drink, I say ‘No!’ Then she puts it in my mouth, but then I spit… She puts it in my mouth so I almost vomit.”
The Competent Agent
The children’s stories also demonstrated competence, in which they employed effective strategies to cope with the myriad of challenges wreaked by their parent’s alcoholism. Hagströma and Forinder found that these coping strategies changed as the participants grew from children to adolescents, and to adults with increasing independence from their parents. The prominent themes of Competent Agent are expanded upon below.
Controlling or preventing the alcohol-dependent parent from drinking:
All participants attempted to control what and how much their parents drank—and anticipated how drunk they would get. Remarkably, the children learned to differentiate between the effects of low-alcohol beer, strong beer, wine, and liquor by identifying bottles, cans, or labels. The children also diluted, hid, or poured out the alcohol—another effort at control.
Consider Julia (age 24) reflecting on her younger self:
“High school was difficult… I lived with mom and I felt the need to control her all the time. As soon as she felt low… I started feeling so bad. A day before I always knew that she’d drink… so I stopped going to school… I took care of her a lot and thought I could cure her… that she was ill… to make her well again. At the same time, I was so angry.”
Confronting the parent with the alcohol misuse problem:
All participants tried to adjust or navigate around their parents when they drank, or when the drinking escalated into verbal fights and/or violence.
Practicing the role of young carer:
The children also assumed the role of caretaker of their alcoholic parents, younger siblings, and themselves, which are described below:
- Caring for the alcohol-dependent parent. Several children described how the parent-child relationship was reversed when their parents drank and/or used drugs. Even as pre-schoolers, children assumed the responsibilities of young carers by cleaning up vomit, undressing and getting them ready for bed, reminding them to take their medication, calling for help, etc.
- Caring for younger siblings. The children’s narratives revealed that the eldest child usually cared for and tried to protect younger siblings. For example, Eva (age 12) recalled how her older brother took care of her and their younger brother when their parents fought:
"Our brother tried to calm us down. Because we were watching children’s programmes when mom and dad started to fight out there. Then you heard a thud, and then she had just fainted. And when she woke up, she lay there screaming on the floor so that nothing could be heard on TV. Our brother covered our ears and we just sat there crying. It was pretty nasty."
- Caring for oneself. The children also took responsibility for their own safety and well-being, demonstrating an awareness of their own feelings and needs. Given that the children’s efforts to reduce their parent’s drinking were largely unsuccessful, they often avoided their inebriated parent. Benjamin (age 6), for instance, used to hide in a small space beneath his home with a torch, and wait for his mother to return from work. He said to himself: "This is a scary dark place where no one else dares to go."
Disclosing the family secret and seeking help:
The children tended to remain silent about their parent’s alcoholism to avoid shame and stigma. The distress associated with disclosing parental alcoholism is technically known as “disclosure stigma,” and is not uncommon among children of alcoholics. Vanna (age 21) reflected on why people fail to protect and support children such as herself:
"I think people close their eyes because they think it’s awkward… They know very well that it’s not alright, but you don’t always have the strength and don’t know what to do… because it’s difficult."
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Anneli Silvén Hagström & Ulla Forinder (2022) ‘If I whistled in her ear she’d wake up’: children’s narration about their experiences of growing up in alcoholic families, Journal of Family Studies, 28:1, 216-238, DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2019.1699849