Children living with parents who drink in a harmful way are ‘among the most vulnerable in society', members of the Oireachtas have been told.
The members were briefed on this issue at an event organised by the Oireachtas Cross Party Group on Alcohol Harm. According to its chairperson, Senator Frances Black, children living in homes where parental drinking is harmful often suffer in silence because they do not know where to go for help.
"The wide range of harms that are caused to children as a result of harmful drinking in the home is known as ‘hidden harm', as the harm is not often visible in public and largely kept behind closed doors. These vulnerable children can suffer in silence, do not know where to turn for help, and the impact of harmful parental drinking has a deep and long-lasting impact on their lives," she explained to Oireachtas members.
Also speaking at the briefing, ISPCC chief executive, Grainia Long, noted that there are a number of key issues that tend to occur when a parent's drinking has become harmful. Relationships are negatively affected, the child becomes more stressed, their enjoyment of childhood is negatively impacted and in severe cases, neglect can occur.
"ISPCC child support workers report support needs for children who struggle with the worry associated with parents drinking at home - whether this is concern for the health and safety of siblings, concern for the health of their parents, an inability to sleep because of noise or intrusion, or an impact on their schooling. A smaller number of children we work with report having been verbally or physically assaulted by parents who are drunk," Ms Long explained.
She pointed to research conducted by the ISPCC which found that when parents drink heavily, their children often disregard their advice in relation to alcohol.
"Parental behaviour influences that of a child and no more so than in relation to alcohol. ISPCC support workers particularly point to seasonal/occasion-related drinking as affecting children, such as around Communion and Confirmation time. When parents take social occasions meant for children and merge them with heavy drinking, children learn similar behaviour," she said.
Meanwhile, according to June Tinsley, head of advocacy at Barnardos, children living with parents who drink in a harmful manner often experience inconsistent and irregular parenting.
"Many underestimate the negative impact alcohol has on family functioning. While its impact varies depending on the frequency and severity of the alcohol misuse, it can result in children feeling confused and rejected by the cycle of broken promises. Older children can feel burdened by having to care for younger siblings as their parent is too unwell to conduct domestic and childcare duties effectively.
"It also can affect their school life, with children of parents with chronic alcohol problems more likely to have problems in terms of learning difficulties, reading problems, poor concentration and generally low performance," Ms Tinsley explained.
Also speaking at the briefing, Tanya Ward, CEO of the Children's Rights Alliance pointed out that young people's health ‘is also being seriously damaged by their own drinking'.
"We now know that the longer we can delay their age of first drink, the better, as this reduces the negative impact on their health and wellbeing, and the likelihood that they'll go on to abuse alcohol later in life.
"We also know that alcohol marketing, including advertising and sponsorship, increases the likelihood that children will start to use and drink more alcohol. Creating an environment where children are protected from this alcohol marketing is an urgent children's rights issue," she noted.
The cross party group insisted that the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is a ‘key step in helping to change our attitude to, and relationship with, alcohol'.
The Public Health Alcohol Bill contains a number of measures aimed at reducing alcohol-related harm in Ireland, including health warnings on alcohol products, the introduction of minimum unit pricing, restrictions on the use of price-based promotions and reducing children's exposure to alcohol marketing.
"The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is evidence-based legislation that aims to reduce our high levels of alcohol consumption in Ireland and can therefore play a key role in helping to break the negative cycle of harmful parental drinking that causes so many problems for children," Senator Black commented.
The Oireachtas Cross Party Group on Alcohol Harm is an informal, all-party group, which is seeking to progress legislation and policy that could help reduce alcohol harm in Ireland, with a particular emphasis on the implementation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.