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Booker prize winner Shuggie Bain sheds light on a growing issue for young people in lockdown

I’m seeing more young people affected by their parent’s drug and alcohol use. We need to support these families through this difficult time.

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels.

By Alison Henderson, Family Worker at We Are With You in Lancashire

There is a passage in this year’s Booker Prize winning novel Shuggie Bain that really hits home. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of a young boy growing up in Pithead in Glasgow with a mother who loves him and means well, but the hardship of her life leads her to take solace in ‘the drink’. At one point Shuggie returns from school and loiters outside, desperately looking for signs of whether his Mother has been on a binge before entering. The next morning he brings her a mug of warm beer when she wakes up to help quiet down ‘the shakes.’

The latest figures from Children in Need show that in 2019/20 over 72,000 children were deemed to be at risk from their parent’s alcohol misuse and over 70,000 from their drug misuse (with some crossover between the two). This is up from just over 64,000 and 62,00 respectively in 2017/18. .

I work in a young person’s drug and alcohol support service and regularly work directly with families affected by the issue. I fear that the pandemic has led to even more young people being adversely affected by parental drug or alcohol use. In my work, I see how parents who have an issue with drugs or alcohol love their children deeply, but are often haunted by their past and what’s going on around them. Research has shown that people with an alcohol issue before the pandemic started are most likely to have increased their drinking since March, with the same likely true for people who use drugs.

When a child grows up with a parent who has an issue with alcohol or drugs, there can be a long lasting impact. Often the child will develop a core belief that the situation is in some way their fault, that they aren’t good enough. The idea that ‘mum or dad doesn’t love me enough to stop drinking’ can become deep rooted. This affects their self worth and can lead to issues such as mental health problems, lower educational outcomes, using drugs or alcohol themselves and a higher risk of attempted suicide. In the sector we refer to this as ‘Hidden Harm’.

For these children, in normal times, school is a space of safety and solace. It’s an ordered, positive environment where they can forget about the stresses of their home life. It’s such a sanctuary that children affected by parental drug or alcohol use often don’t act up in class or get in trouble, instead preferring to savour the controlled environment. This means that it can be hard to recognise when an issue is going on at home. In many cases, families with a parent with a drug or alcohol issue look very functional from the outside.

That isn’t to say everything goes unnoticed. Often schools know their young people best so can be the first to see if a child is potentially being affected by their parents drug or alcohol use. But all schools are currently closed. Because of their generally good behaviour, many of the young people affected by the issue won’t come up on ‘vulnerable’ lists which allow them to continue to come to school at the moment.

Homeschooling a child is stressful at the best of times. I fear that many young people are spending their days cooped up indoors being homeschooled by a parent(s) who is undoubtedly trying their best, but who’s learned behaviour is to deal with stress through alcohol or drugs. This can create a cycle of stress and increased use, leading the young person to fall behind academically and internalise a sense of guilt at the overall situation.

But, while the pandemic is clearly creating a concerning picture, it has also provided new opportunities for families to receive support. Often parents feel a real sense of shame and can find the thought of walking into a drug and alcohol service really daunting. But the move to digital services means people don’t need to leave their house to get help. It’s a much more private experience now.

Many parents are also concerned about losing their children but our aim is always to help the family unit work, not disrupt it. We work with the parent to help them address the reasons behind their drug or alcohol use and communicate to young people that it’s not their fault, that a parent can love their child completely but still have an issue with drugs or alcohol.

Douglas Stuart, who wrote Shuggie Bain, rose out of a difficult childhood to write a deeply moving book that captures the humanity of someone trying to do their best for their children while battling their own internal demons. There’s no reason today’s young people can’t go on to achieve similar things, providing families are supported through this difficult time.

These are tough times for everyone. Our services are open and we’re here to work alongside you during this difficult time. Visit our website for information and advice, to chat to a trained advisor or to find your local service.

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We are one of the UK’s leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities. We provide free, confidential support with drugs, alcohol and mental health.