Helpline on
Telephone Icon
or email us at

Time to speak out for children of alcoholics

Posted: 08-02-2017

'I loved my dad and he loved me. I still miss him every day - his dry sense of humour, his idealism and passion for the underdog, his advice and northern common sense. He gave me so much. But sadly, one of those things was a childhood coloured by the excesses of his drinking.

It's not something I'm used to talking about. As a child, I found it too embarassing, and, in later years, too upsetting. But at Christmas, answering a routine media question about the billions that alcohol abuse costs the NHS and whether extra taxation is the answer, I found myself explaining that alcoholism is more complicated than that. How did I know? Because of my childhood.

My parents divorced when I was seven, when the strain of my dad's drinking became too much for their marriage. I was so lucky they were both such loving parents, but my life was changed. I lived during the week with my mum - who worked all the hours she could to give me the best possible life - and the weekends were always spent with my dad. 

It was when he was living alone, continuing his job as a casino croupier and with a succession of short-lived girlfriends, that the true extent of his alcohol dependence became clear to me. One Friday, I remember him picking me up at the school gate to walk me home, but immediately falling over because he was so drunk. I had to go to a phone box and order us a taxi.

There, the fridge was almost always empty except for huge bottles of cheap white wine. At the age of eight, it almost felt like my job to get the food in. I remember one December going to the corner shop to buy decorations just so his home would vaguely feel like the Christmas we were about to share together.

His drinking ebbed and flowed, depending on what girlfriend he was with at the time but it was always a constant feature. He was never violent or abusive with it, but I still quickly learnt the mechanisms to cope with living with someone who was a seldom user.

In later years my dad retired and moved to the Far East. When I invited him back for my wedding, proud to show him what I'd done with my life and introduce him to my wife, he refused to come, and I felt heartbroken and angry. I only learnt a few months later - after he had died in Thailand - that he didn't come because he was worried he would embarrass me with his drinking on our big day.

Since I found myself speaking up about my experiences, I've been inundated with messages from people who grew up in similar circumstances thanking me for talking about the experiences we share. And having felt a bit embarrassed and exposed talking about my childhood secrets, those messages have encouraged me to push this further.

The truth is it would be easy for me as Shadow Health Secretary to spend my time simply criticising the government, but I want to do something more than that. Experts estimate that over 2 million children in Britain are growing up with an alcoholic parent. And yet too often these children have to cope with that in silence, exactly the way I did, with no support or recognition. It's time these children were given the support they deserve and need. So I hope Mumsnet readers will join me with in speaking up for the children of alcoholics, by sharing your own stories and working with me on finding solutions.

The journey starts today, Thursday 2 February, when we are holding a debate in Parliament on the issue. 

Some of the ideas we are looking at include better specialised training for professionals to support children in these kinds of households, and also ensuring that councils are funded at a level which allows them to reach out to families affected by alcoholism through schools, community nurses and SureStart children's centres.

And of course we need to look at the root of the problem by doing more to combat alcohol abuse across society. We've made so much progress in the last two decades getting the message out about how much damage smoking does, not just to you, but the people around you. By comparison, on an issue like alcoholism, we are nowhere near the public debate we need to have on what we might call 'secondary drinking'.

My experience with my dad left me feeling not damaged but determined, and I think it has helped shape who I am today. But others will not have been so lucky. So my message to children growing up or caring for alcoholic parents is this: you're not alone. I thought I was. Speak to someone about it – whether it's a teacher or a relative or family friend. Other people will help – just don't do it all by yourself.’

Blog is written by Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health Secretary, and originally published on mumsnet.

If you are worried about someone's alcohol or drug misuse, Scottish Families has a free helpline 08080 10 10 11 for advice and support.