The ACoA FACT FINDER
The UK’s largest-ever survey into the extent and traits of children of alcoholics previewed its findings at Addiction Today’s conference. It has even more impact than mental illness, concludes Professor Martin Callingham.
This article was first published in Addiction Today November 1999.
23,378 people across the UK were selected at random and interviewed in 1998, in their own homes, to investigate the extent and characteristics of adults who grew up in a home with alcoholic parents. Many of the people recruited from this to take further part in the survey did not have contact with the substance-abuse or mental-health professions – which makes this survey almost unique in terms of the nature and ‘representativeness’ of those from whom the data was then collected.
Responders Agreed %
Total 23,378 9,789 41.8%
Alcohol 1,464 953 65.0
Mental health 1,019 707 69.3
Trauma 2,401 1,548 64.4
No problem 19,454 7,387 37.3
People were asked tree questions: "Did you grow up in a home in which either or both of your parents drank too much?", "Did you grow up in a home in which either or both of your parents suffered from a mental-health problem such as schizophrenia?" and "Did you grow up in a home in which severe trauma occurred involving disablement, death or loss of long-term contact with another member of your family?".
To maximise accuracy, the self-completed questionnaires were numbered so that, when returned, they could be weighted by demographics to represent the original ‘universe’ across the population and country. That said, the responses might be conservative, because denial that there is a problem is a possible symptom of growing up in an alcoholic family. Indeed, a few people who originally replied that there was no problem later rang in to the survey team saying that the opposite was true.
The survey aimed to quantify four areas for future action:
Â· How extensive is the problem compared to other recognised problems?
Â· How severe is the problem in comparison with other problems?
Â· What are the characteristics of the problem?
Â· Does it impact differently depending on the childâ€™s circumstances?
SO WHAT DID WE FIND OUT?
It must be stressed that these are very preliminary results as not all the questionnaires have been returned yet. But those received do reflect the demographics.
The first finding is that, in the UK, over 16% of people grew up in a home which had a severe trauma involving death, disablement, long-term separation, mental illness, or at least one of their parents drinking too much. 3.5% of people grew up in homes wit more than one of these.
There is some reporting variation by demographics. They are a bit more prevalent among women, social grade E, and less prevalent among the old. And alcoholic parents are reported more often the lower the social grade.
Second, some 6.2% of adults claim that they grew up in a family where one or both of the aprents drank too much. This is greater than the number who grew up in a home where one or both of the parents suffered from severe mental illness: 4.3%. This indicates that this situation is more prevalent.
And the likelihood of a person being prepared to help in the survey rose from 38% of people who had not grown up in such homes to over 80% of people who did grow up in homes where all three were present. This obviously suggests a wish on the part of these people to ‘talk’ about their childhood situation.
SEVERITY OF THE PROBLEM
Most people who had been in a home with one of these problems had tried to hide this from people outside. The proportion varied a little across the groups, with 70% of homes where a parent drank too much trying to hide it, and 75% of homes with severe mental illness and 55% of homes with trauma trying to do so.
There were some differences in the characteristics of the three samples. Children of alcoholic parents drank more than the control group (remember, the control group reports no problems), though not excessively. They were more likely to be unemployed or not looking for work than the control. They were more likely to be divorced. And they were more likely to have a job in which they ‘played out’ a role.
To this extent, they had similariaties to the group which grew up in a household with severe mental ilness. They, too, were appreciably more likely to be divorced, unemployed and playing out a role in their jobs than the control group. They had a slightly different age profile, being a little ounger and more concentrated in the 34-45 age range than the control.
The hig divorce rates in both the alcoholic and mental-illness groups meant that the natural father was often not living in the house and his absence was increasingl likely as the child got older. But this was offset against the greater likelihood of the mother remarrying and there being a stepfather.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PROBLEM
The family environment between the control group and the ‘alcoholic’ group was described in dramatically different ways. But there was much similarity between the households of the alcohol group and the mental-illness group.
This is the first evidence in the survey that the intensity of the phenomenon of growing up in a household in which at least one of the parents drank too much is of a similar magnitude to that of growing up in a houseold where one of the parents suffered from severe mental illness.
The control groups were very much less likely to describe their household in terms of shortage of money, arguments, violence, stress, worry and the embarrassment of taking friends home. They were much more likely to describe it int terms of good times, happiness, fun, affection, pride, helping one another and of friends being welcome.
25% of people from homes in which there was a mental illness said that the problem had affected them "ver badly". 30% of people who grew up in alcoholic homes also said this, but only about 10% said that this was now true. About 40% of the two test groups said that the mother had been "very badly" affected at the time.
The relationship which the respondents in the survey had with their parents was much better for the control group where most said – on almost every aspect they were asked about – that their parents were doiing it "just right", neither "too much" nor "too little", though the father generall got a slightly lower rating. In comparison to this, only a minority of parents were judged to do this in the two test groups.
Mothers and fathers got similar ratings from children from mental-illness homes. Fathers were rated lower than mothers in alcoholic homes, where the father was nore likely to be doing the drinking.
CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS COMPARED TO OTHER PEOPLE
The respondents in the survey were asked to tick a series of words which described themselves when they were a child and now. Some of these words are positive characteristics and some (more) negative.
As we have a sample of adults who did not grow up in an alcoholic family as well as those who did, we can compare the self-perception of these people as children and as adults. To what extent did they see themselves as having a personality as children which was different from the control group – and has time healed the wounds?
The answers showed that the personality was much more problematic in the case of children from alcoholic homes. And, surprisingly, the also showed that the impact of growing up in an alcoholic home was significantly worse than in a home where one or both parents had a mental-health problem.
On a number of dimensions, age brought some relief to the respondents’ distress. But mostly they continue to carry the mark of being from an alcoholic home.
We found that, on a few positive fronts, children of alcoholics describe themselves more positively than the control but mostly they came off worse. And on many negative things the describe themselves as worse. Only in three aspects did it seem that the experience had a positive side, and that was that these adults were more likely to see themselves as "achieving, charming and successful". But the are less likely to identify positive characteristics such as being responsible, confident, happy, secure, satisfied, accommodating and dependable.
Improvements had been made since childhood on the happy, secure and satisfied aspects, where again time seems to have helped.
Children of alcoholics are also more likely to see themselves as having numerous negative traits: lack of feeling, depression, irrationality, agressiveness, nervousness, jitters, indecision and "being different to other people". Time has slightly improved some of these negative self-images.
Children of alcoholics are also more likely to see themselves as lonely or stressed. Both of these were worse when they were children, as was being frightened, which was a major emotion as a child but is about the same as the control group in adultood.
There are some dramatic differences in reported behaviour between the two test groups and the control. These are behavioural concerns which could lead them to need/seek professional help – and purchasers of substance-misuse treatment services should note tat this data consolidates the view that addressing these will also form an effective prevention service for the next generation.
Many more people in the test groups than in the control group claim that the have considered suicide, had eating disorders, had a drug addition and had been in trouble with the police, especially as a child, as well as having above-average alcoholic and mental-health problems themselves.
The experience and background of the two test groups leads them to worry more than the control group that their children might in the future drink too much or suffer mental-health problems.
Time has not managed to improve these negative self images.
Although these are preliminary results, it is clear that more adults grew up in an ‘alcoolic’ home in which at least one of the aprents drank too much than grew up in a home with mental illness. So it is clear that this is a more extensive problem.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the characteristics of these two groups, in comparison with the control group are very similar. They show considerable stress in childhood and clear indications of the way in which their childhood had affected their personality and behaviour as adults – and the problems experienced by children of alcoholics are more severe and more widespread than those experienced by children of parents with a mental disorder.
Professor Martin Callingham has spent over 20 years in the research field and is on the Council of Esomar, which represents the international research community. He is one of the few Fellows of the Market Research Society and is a visiting professor at Birkbeck College.
He presented the preliminary findings of this Â£60,000 research, commissioned by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, at Addiction Today’s Solutions For The Millennium conference in October 1999.