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One in four children considers parents’ alcohol use a problem

A quarter of children and young people in Finland report being affected negatively by alcohol use at home on occasion. The most common harm stemming from alcohol use at home is fighting, something over half of this 25 percent say that they have experienced. Shame and loss of trust are also common.

Image: Juho Liukkonen / Yle

Problem drinking is still a subject in Finland that few people are willing to talk about. Many rationalize complacence in the face of excess alcohol use by saying that how a grown person chooses to use alcohol is their own business. By extension, many parents with alcohol problems don’t understand the severity of their situation and the stress it causes their children.

Drinking to get drunk is still common and accepted in the Finnish drinking culture. According to a Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare (THL) study from 2009, in 1968 about 14 percent of men drank ‘in earnest’ at least once a month. In 1984, the corresponding figure had risen to 26 percent and has stayed more or less the same ever since.

Drinking to get drunk is rarer among women than men, but the relative rate of increase has been greater. In 1968, about one percent of women reported being drunk at least once a month, but that number increased to 8 percent in 1992 and has remained at the same level since.

Experts recommend that women should not drink more than five drinks on a single occasion, and men no more than seven. About a fifth of men and about ten percent of women who drink alcohol in Finland exceed these safety guidelines.

Mum or dad has a problem

The whole family is often complicit in actively denying parental substance abuse problems. In many cases, it is a parent with a good job who comes home every night to his or her family and opens a bottle of wine with dinner. A second glass follows the first and soon the bottle is empty so mum or dad is opening another.

Fragile Childhood (Lasinen lapsuus) is a charity organisation founded in Finland in 1986 to reduce the harmful effects of parental substance abuse on children. A study commissioned by Fragile Childhood in 2011 from the market research firm Taloustutkimus analysed youth appraisals of their parents’ drinking. Among other things, the study found that one out of every four 12 to 18 year olds felt their parents’ drinking caused them some kind of harm.

Under-age respondents to the study said they felt shame, disgust and fear about their parents’ alcohol use. Fragile Childhood Project Manager Minna Ilva says many young people who contact her organisation say that superficially, everything in their family is in order. The parents still have steady work and a decent income level. Addiction is not determined by social status.

International studies discuss the passive harm alcohol use can have on others.

“Drinking in Finland has long been considered people’s private affair - none of anyone’s business. But when a child is born into a family with a problem, there are social hazards for everyone,” says Sari Airas of Perhekoti Pallo, a foster home for teens in the eastern city of Lappeenranta.

Many can't drink in moderation

Airas says the ‘wine sipping’ culture of Southern Europe has reached Finnish shores, but time has shown that some Finns cannot enjoy wine in moderation and have a hard time drinking reasonable amounts.

Airas says the effects of parental drinking on children are easily seen at the foster home. Children’s unwavering loyalty to their parents compels them to keep the drinking a secret, which creates a heavy burden. They wait, are afraid, and many times have to step in to settle fights. Intoxicated parents frighten children and make them anxious and excessive alcohol use can eventually alter the parent-child relationship Children’s trust in their parents suffers.

Their parents’ example also teaches some young people to lie and conceal unpleasant truths. Children are only able to start processing what they have gone through once they have become an adult. Nevertheless, the damage begins already when the child is young.

“A mother's drinking can cause major permanent psycho-sociological problems in her children. These include chronic feelings of shame and distress, the risk of accidents, health problems and psychosomatic disorders,” says Airas.

Children are always aware

Parents who seek to hide their drinking from their children do not succeed. Fragile Childhood Project Designer Koko Hubara says children are always aware of the details of the events at home and the prevailing atmosphere.   

“Young people wonder about the arrival of holidays and worry how things will go. Parents who have promised to not drink fall off the wagon again. Will there by a fight? Children of substance abusers always have their antenna up, checking the air from every direction,” says Hubara.

Sari Airas agrees, and says children instinctively know the boundary between appropriate and non-appropriate alcohol use.

“The stories we hear from children here at the foster home confirm that alcohol has no place in the home. It is fine for the occasional celebration, but it has no place in daily life. Drinking alcohol daily and at home has become much more common. Before, people would go out to a bar if they wanted to drink; now they stay at home. Both parents drink alcohol and then they fight,” says Airas.

The first step is to talk about it

Youth counsellor Niina Ljungkvist works at the Sammontori Youth House in Lappeenranta. She says she meets several young people a month in her work who speak spontaneously about their parents’ alcohol use. The conversation doesn’t start on this subject, but the kids gradually work their way around to mentioning it.

Minna Ilva points out children often blame themselves for their parents’ drinking, thinking that mum or dad is getting drunk because they have done something wrong.

“It is important that children know that they are not alone. There are others in the same situation and several support groups are active online,” says Ilva.

Online tests and counters like those found in Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian and sign language at the A-Clinic Foundation Addictionlink website (siirryt toiseen palveluun) assist people to determine whether there is reason for concern about their alcohol use.

Airas’ advice for people who suspect they have a problem is simple: talk to another adult. Whether it is someone from your workplace’s occupational health services, your spouse, your parents or a friend, talking about the problem is the first step towards overcoming it.

“Take a look in the mirror and talk to someone. It’s a bad sign if your circle of friends only has people who use alcohol in the same manner you do, or if all of your social and leisure time events are associated with drinking,” she says.

Children need sober adults in their life who have the time and inclination to do things with them.

“If you don’t have time to spend with your children, it is high time you do something about it,” says Airas.

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