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Hidden harm

family - hidden harm 1

Sometimes the effects of alcohol dependence on children and young people is called hidden harm. People may not talk about what is happening, perhaps because they feel ashamed or that they are somehow to blame. The family may seem to be OK from the outside. The problems and the emotional impacts may not be recognised and children may not get the help and support they need.

The effect of harmful drinking on children

Children living with a dependent or problem drinker can suffer in many ways from the disruption to family life and relationships that can result from the drinking:

  • Emotional problems, worries and feelings of hurt or shame
  • A lack of rules and routine
  • A lack of basic care, like clean clothes, good food and healthcare
  • Taking on adult responsibilities
  • Living with unpredictability and chaos
  • Broken promises and unreliability
  • Health problems linked to emotional issues, neglect or abuse

When I was about 9 I had to do all the cooking and get my sister ready for school

family - hidden harm

Children may not have the words to express how they feel. You may assume they are OK because they are not complaining, but it's worth keeping a close eye on your children if alcohol is a problem in your family to spot any warning signs that they are struggling. 


It’s important to know that children can live in very difficult situations without developing significant problems. 

Read more:

How children might feel

Effects on family life

Signs your child may not be coping

Building resilience

Support services for families

¹ Bottling it up report:

Aisling McLaughlin, Tara O’Neill, Claire McCartan, Andy Percy, Mark McCann, Oliver Perra & Kathryn Higgins. Parental alcohol use and resilience in young people: A study of family, peer and school processes Funded by HSC R&D Division, Public Health Agency
Bremner, P., Burnett, J., Nunney, F., Ravat, M. & Mistral, W. (2011). Young People, alcohol and influences. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Burke, S., Schmied, V. & Montrose, M. (2006). Parental alcohol misuse and the impact on children. New South Wales: Centre for Parenting & Research.
BOTTLING IT UP: THE NEXT GENERATION. The effects of parental alcohol misuse on children and families.
Farrell, M.P., Barnes, G.M., & Banerjee, S. (1995). Family cohesion as a buffer against the effects of problem-drinking fathers on psychological distress, deviant behavior, and heavy drinking in adolescents. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 377-385
Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) (2010). “If they’re getting loaded, why can’t I?” A large-scale exploratory survey examining the behaviour and attitudes of young people in Ireland towards teen and parental alcohol use, and the effects of parental alcohol use on young people’s lives. Ireland: ISPCC. 
Mylant, M., Ide, B., Cuevas, E. & Meehan, M. (2002). Adolescent children of alcoholics: vulnerable or resilient? Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 8:57.
TAKING THE LID OFF A resource for families living with addiction and problematic substance abuse. ASCERT. 
Tusla / Barnados: Parenting Positively. Helping teenagers to cope with A Parent’s Problem Drug or Alcohol Use.
Velleman, R. & Templeton, L. (2007). Understanding and modifying the impact of parents’ substance misuse on children. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 13, 79-89.
Mary Murray (Ed) (2016) Western Region Drugs & Alcohol Task Force Family Support Handbook. Western Region Drugs & Alcohol Task Force, Galway.

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