Researching parental alcohol misuse at university – Kirsty Kerr

To raise the profile of children affected by parental alcohol problems, it is incredibly important to promote research at universities in this still under-represented area. In the below piece, Kirsty Kerr describes why she has focused her university studies to reveal the realities of mental ill health and parental alcohol misuse.


Kirsty’s Research

In May this year, I completed a BA Hons degree in Early Childhood Professional Studies. As part of the third year programme, I was required to carry out a literature review on a topic of personal preference. It had to have an obvious link to children and their development and my final piece was entitled, ‘The link between parental alcoholism and mental ill health and its impact on the prenatal, postnatal and adolescent development of the child.’

As an adult child of an alcoholic and one which has suffered from mental health adversities as a result, I always knew I wanted my final piece of work to be based around this. It is frequently reported that alcoholism is often connected to and accompanied by poor mental health. I am very passionate about raising awareness and removing stigma surrounding mental health and I feel particularly strongly about this with regards to children.

Growing up with an alcoholic mother was chaotic, unpredictable and brought many challenges, many of which have followed me into adulthood. When I wrote this piece of work I hoped it would bring awareness to the reality of what childhood can be like for a child in such contexts. What I also hoped this would do for anybody who is living or has lived through suchlike experiences, is show that we are worthy, we are capable and there are people who understand and who care.

My review was produced using secondary research and was broken down into chapters which looked at the prenatal, early years and adolescent development of the child, as well as an insight into the support currently available for children and their families alike. My findings certainly solidified what I already thought was the case. Although the lack of awareness and support for children of alcoholics, is something which will continue to surprise me until something significantly changes.

The findings showed a clear interconnection between mental ill health and alcohol misuse and the fact that this can both directly and indirectly affect a child’s holistic development. Damage caused to an unborn child through maternal alcohol abuse during pregnancy, was found to be the most obvious.

However, it was reassuring to find a wider breadth of knowledge surrounding the indirect ways children can be affected. The living environments experienced by children with alcohol dependant and/or mentally ill parents, can become very dysfunctional. Family confrontation and neglectful behaviours were found to be more prominent in these households and as a result, this was found to put a child’s future development at significant risk.

Transition into adolescence was also found to be more problematic for children of parents with such issues and my findings highlighted how this can result in them experiencing depressive symptoms during this time. What was also disturbing, is that fact that there is an increased risk of them becoming alcoholics themselves as a result of learnt behaviour and poor mental health – a cycle which we must break!

What I found with regards to support available to children and their families, is that despite governmental implementation of policy and the ongoing work of local and national charities, it is still not as adequate as it needs to be. Stigma plays a huge part in every stage, from a child feeling able to share their needs, to society and professionals being accepting of them. While we have come a long way with decreasing stigmatisation around mental health and coexisting issues, it is still not suffice.

Further consideration needs to be given to children of alcoholics and mental health in general, particularly amongst young people. It is essential we equip children with the ability and confidence to seek support as early as possible. It is therefore crucial that we endeavour to provide services in response to this for both the child and their family.


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