A childhood made of glass – experiences of adults’ alcohol use are not forgotten

The problems caused by alcohol do not solely affect the person who has an alcohol problem. In families in which a parent has an alcohol problem, the children also carry a heavy burden. This can have far-reaching effects on them later in life.

A childhood made of glass is caused by a parent’s harmful alcohol use

Alcohol use by a parent causes problems in children’s lives and wellbeing in many Finnish families. The “childhood made of glass” survey conducted by the A-Clinic Foundation has revealed that more than one in four young people have often or sometimes experienced harmful effects due to alcohol use by a parent. In addition, one in four Finns have experienced harmful effects from alcohol use by an adult close to them when they were children. (Source: A-Clinic Foundation)

Alcohol use by a parent is harmful to a child when it disturbs the child or causes suffering. A childhood made of glass is a situation in which alcohol causes recurring problems that hinder a child’s growth and life. Excessive alcohol use by a parent causes a child to feel shame, loss of trust and fear.

Changes in the behaviour of a drinking adult have the most harmful impact on a child

Children and young people are most harmfully affected by changes in the behaviour of a parent after the consumption of even a small amount of alcohol. When a parent starts to talk or laugh more loudly than normal, this can scare the child. The parent might become unpredictable and short-tempered, making it difficult for the child to rely on the parent. In general, when the familiar parent turns into a stranger, the child becomes confused and feels unsafe.

The common adverse effects of excessive drinking by parents on young people are a feeling of shame and the fights caused by parental alcohol use in the family. In addition, many young people are afraid of the drinking adult and become anxious.

A young person is still a child in need of the care and presence of a parent. Problematic alcohol use can cause a parent to be mentally absent, which can make a young person feel sad and confused. Especially those young people who have experienced the adverse effects of drinking by their parents wish that their parents would ask them more often about how they are feeling. Young people of legal age also still need parental support (source: A-Clinic Foundation).

Even one safe adult helps a child to cope

Even if a parent is a problem drinker, every family has the resources to help children cope. Many things outside of the family of the child/young person can help him/her to grow up into a thriving adult.

The most typical of these is a safe adult who takes care of the child – for instance, one of the parents or a sibling who does not have an alcohol problem. A parent who has problems with alcohol can also function as a good parent.

Other important things at home for the child:

  • effective daily routines
  • good communication between family members
  • demonstrations of mutual affection and
  • a positive and supportive atmosphere that helps the child to cope with any problems facing the family.

Safe adults and healthy role models outside the home are especially important to children and young people whose childhood is made of glass. Doing ordinary things together or talking with the parents of friends can be truly meaningful experiences to a child/young person. Hobby instructors and coaches can provide positive experiences to children and young people in stressful life situations. School can also be a safe haven for children and young people who have a difficult home environment.

Adverse effects can also be felt later in life

Someone whose childhood is made of glass has to take on responsibility for him-/herself, younger siblings and even his/her parents. Distorted family roles, having to take on responsibility too early, and not having supportive surroundings that foster trust can have a variety of impacts later in life, both in youth and adulthood, unless these problems are addressed. A childhood made of glass can lead to a feeling of worthlessness and difficulties with trusting oneself, other people and life in general. In adulthood, these are all-too easily reflected in intimate relationships and parenting.

When these children made of glass become young adults or parents, many of them seek help with dealing with their childhood experiences. They might still be thinking about their relationship with their own parents in their middle age and even in old age. It is never too late to get help.