If they start again

As the holidays approach, the children and young people’s helpline often receives calls from children whose Christmas spirit is rather low.

As is the case with children, they’re not always able to say right away why they’re feeling lonely, anxious or depressed, but as the conversation progresses, they’ll mention adult family members’ alcohol use. Children generally contact the helpline when the holidays have already started to follow the usual, unpleasant pattern, even though they really wished it wouldn’t.

During the holidays, parents’ intoxicant use is not something that affects only a marginal number of families that have been bogged down with worries. People can temporarily drink a lot of alcohol while still going to work and living a regular life.

The holidays give many adults an excuse to drink more alcohol than normal

The Christmas spread is usually considered to include not only tasty food but also a variety of beverages. And a glass or two seems perfectly in order when you see your family again for the first time in ages, when you’ve just started your holiday, when you’ve done the Christmas cleaning, and when you want to relax, kick back your heels and have a bit of fun.

Yet regardless of their age, children often get irritated and annoyed at parents who aren’t themselves because of alcohol – when they act in an embarrassing, irritable, loud or frightening way. Children have described how the younger kids are left in the care of the older children, and how they find it difficult to sleep, as they’re anxious and afraid of the adults – who are staying up late, even though they’re not necessarily acting aggressively. It’s enough that their parents aren’t themselves – they feel like strangers and don’t provide a sense of security.

When one or both parents want to relax during the holidays and drink a lot of alcohol, the family’s normal routines, including meal times, can be forgotten. Children often look forward to certain rituals and customs that are part of most family Christmases, and these too can be missed or interrupted. And although there may be noodles and cereal in the cupboard, it’s not the same as sitting down together to eat home-cooked food that goes unmade when parents drink too much. Adult family members may also get into fights more easily, raise their voices or sleep more, which makes children feel confused and afraid. Children will often withdraw and stay out of people’s way. And the time passes slowly.

The constant minor stress of living in an unpredictable situation drains a child’s energy and makes them yearn for a sympathetic adult ear. It doesn’t help that Christmas is generally a holiday that’s spent with family, so all of the child’s friends will also be with their families, making it difficult or impossible to contact or visit friends.

The children we talk to don’t have any particularly special or difficult Christmas wishes. All children hope for a pleasant Christmas holiday. The best thing that can happen is that they get to spend time with their family. To eat well, relax and have some tasty treats. To decorate the tree and open a few presents. To just be, and get some attention from their parents.

Laura Pilkama

The Mannerheim League for Child Welfare’s telephone and internet help services

The children and young people’s helpline (tel. 116 111) is open every day. Even at Christmas.