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Children carry shameful secret of parents’ drink and drugs abuse

Published: 18th August 2010 12:22

Children as young as five are contacting ChildLine because they are concerned and often scared about their parents drinking or taking drugs, a new report published on Monday revealed. 

Last year the free, 24-hour service took 5,700 calls from children - some still at primary school - wanting to talk about the problem. Many of them also revealed they were being beaten, sexually abused or neglected. ChildLine North West, which has bases in Manchester and Liverpool, counselled 646 of these callers from across the UK.

ChildLine caller by Larry BrayPhotography by Larry Bray.  Posed by model.

For the first-time, through this report, ChildLine is revealing a heart-rending insight into the lives of children who are desperately trying to cope with a traumatic role reversal where they are attempting to look after their parents, brothers and sisters. Yet despite this ‘huge burden of responsibility' they are more concerned with solving their families' problems than their own.

Over 4,000 children who rang ChildLine last year said they were worried about their parents' excessive drinking. These youngsters were also more than three times as likely to mention suffering physical abuse (35%) than other children who called. And there were issues with family conflicts (20%) and sexual abuse (10%).

One 10 year-old-girl told ChildLine: "My mum drinks all the time. She leaves me alone lots of the time. I feel scared and lonely. I look after mum when she drinks and put her to bed. She shouts and hits me. I don't want to feel pain. I want to die."

And a 13 year-old-boy said: "My mum is an alcoholic. I need to stop mum and dad arguing and fighting. This is always happening. I feel upset at the way my dad treats her. I feel sad because she goes off for days and drinks. I have not told anyone about what is happening. I like to keep it a secret."

Christine Mellor, assistant director for ChildLine in the North West said: "The fallout from parental drug and alcohol abuse is a ticking time bomb in many children's lives. It's vital these children are helped before lasting damage occurs. The ChildLine service has given a voice to these hidden children, many of whom feel they have a shameful secret to hide. Many have never told anyone before calling us.

"Children living with parental alcohol and drug problems are at more risk of harm and we need to find ways of helping them sooner. But we must also remember they can be fiercely protective of their parents. One young girl's first comment to the ChildLine counsellor was, ‘I don't want anything to happen to my mother'."

Parental drug misuse was reported as a problem in the lives of 2,284 children given ChildLine counselling across the UK last year. These children were almost six times more likely to call about their own drug misuse themselves. They also reported physical abuse as a main problem (25%), family relationship problems (19%), and sexual abuse (8%).

One 12-year-old boy told a ChildLine counsellor: "My dad is beating me and my younger brother; dad injects something into his arm and shouts at me and beats me. My brother and I have bruises. My teachers see this and when they ask I tell them I had a fall."

Christine Mellor continued: "Some children told ChildLine about their parents' severe mood swings, episodes of violence, and emotional instability. Some said their parents were regularly sick, and that caring for them had affected their schooling, or prevented them forming friendships with other children. This means teachers can be well placed to ask questions and initiate help for a vulnerable child.

"These children desperately need help to tackle their problems but feel they have no one to turn to. So they often end up caring for their siblings and even their own parents by themselves."

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