Quarter of Irish Adults Grew Up with a Problem Drinker at Home – Study Finds

A quarter of adults in Ireland – almost one million people – experienced living with a problem drinker as a child. That is according to research conducted by Maynooth University.
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A quarter of adults in Ireland – almost one million people – experienced living with a problem drinker as a child. That is according to research conducted by Maynooth University.

The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study found associations with problem alcohol use in the home and mental health difficulties in adulthood.

The study which compared US and Irish people, found that living with a problem drinker or drug user is significantly associated with PTSD and CPTSD (Complex PTSD).

Participants in the study whose parents abused substances were two and a half times more likely to qualify for substance abuse disorder themselves. They were two times more likely to qualify for disruptive behaviour disorders.

Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI) is currently hosting a series of events as part of its ‘End the Silence’ initiative. It aims to highlight the lasting effects of living with a problem drinker on young people, and the importance of “really listening to them and meeting them where they are at.”

Dr Cian Aherne, a clinical psychologist with Jigsaw Ireland, a mental health service for 12 to 25 year olds, is one of the speakers at the event.

Dr Aherne advocates for the Power Threat Meaning (PTM) Framework. This framework examines young people’s behaviour, not as an illness, but as a normal response to trauma.

The approach can be broadly summarized in the following questions:

  • ‘What has happened to you?’ (How is POWER operating in your life?)
  • ‘How did it affect you?’ (What kind of THREATS does this pose?)
  • ‘What sense did you make of it?’ (What is the MEANING of these situations and experiences to you?
  • ‘What did you have to do to survive?’ (What kinds of THREAT RESPONSE are you using?)

AAI chief executive officer Dr Sheila Gilheany said: “As a society we are in denial about the harm alcohol causes to children.

“It is imperative that we start to take this issue more seriously and to realise the impact that problem alcohol use in the home is having on invisible victims of alcohol harm – children.

“Often when a child has mental health needs they are manifesting some trauma in the family.”

Dr Gilheany said: “This is not about blaming parents. Irish society is saturated with alcohol marketing that sells a powerful myth that alcohol doesn’t have any downsides.

“Parents are dealing with their own stresses and traumas and a lack of trauma-informed services to help people with mental health needs and substance use issues that are so common these days, leads people to use alcohol more and more.”

Ailbhe Smyth, an activist who has personal experience of growing up with a problem drinker, said: “Families are deeply disrupted when someone is dependent on alcohol or other substances.

“The trauma that permeates throughout the family can cause family members – and children in particular – to have their own mental health needs.”

The Ombudsman for Children, Niall Muldoon said: “Research shows that children growing up with problem alcohol use in the home are more likely to experience mental health problems, to have poor school attendance, behavioural problems, as well as substance use problems and eating disorders.

“These are stark findings that we’ve known about for some time. Yet often, we do not join the dots between young people’s issues and their lived experiences.

“We must do better as a state in understanding children’s behaviours in terms of what is going on in their lives.”

Mr Muldoon added. “This goes beyond the small number of children who come to the attention of Tusla, Camhs or the gardaí, and as a nation we need to acknowledge the need for our communities, schools and clubs to understand the possible traumas in children’s lives and ensure they are listened to and supported in the contexts they live in.”