This article aims to investigate what it means to grow up in an alcoholic family environment. Nineteen children aged 6–11 who participated in a psycho-educational programme in the 1990s for children living with parents who misuse alcohol were interviewed about their experiences in a longitudinal study. A narrative analysis of their life stories demonstrates how, on the one hand, they positioned themselves as ‘vulnerable victims’ exposed to their parent’s alcoholism and to situations of severe neglect, domestic violence and sexual abuse. This position was characterized by a sense of powerlessness and lack of resources for coping with emotional distress and risk, as well as an urgent need for protection and care. On the other hand, the children positioned themselves as ‘competent agents’ who had developed purposeful strategies for managing their life situation, such as trying to reduce their parent’s drinking and undertaking the role of a ‘young carer’. The children primarily tried to normalize themselves in their social circle in a position of ‘silenced and invisible victims’. However, the alcoholism was usually exposed and the children occasionally also found themselves in the position of ‘help-seeking victims’ obliged to disclose the ‘family secret’. Remarkably, this rarely changed their situation very much. Instead, the children were commonly left in the position of ‘visible but unprotected victims’.

KEYWORDS: Children of alcoholics COA, coping strategies, longitudinal study, narrative, support needs, stigmatization


Silvén Hagström, A. & Forinder, U. (2019). ‘If I whistled in her ear she’d wake up’: children’s narration about their experiences of growing up in alcoholic families. Journal of Family Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2019.1699849.