“Like sugar for adults” UK children anxious about parents’ drinking

Report finds low-level parental drinking can leave children feeling worried, embarrassed and facing more arguments. 

A new report published yesterday (18 October) by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) in partnership with the Alcohol and Families Alliance and Alcohol Focus Scotland explores the impact of non-dependent parental drinking on children and families. Findings show parents do not have to regularly drink large amounts of alcohol for their children to notice changes in their behaviour and experience negative impacts.

Whilst much evidence exists on the negative effects of alcohol dependence, this is the first study to look at how lower level alcohol consumption impacts families in the UK.

Having seen a parent tipsy or drunk was associated with children feeling worried as well as experiencing at least one of a range of negative impacts including, feeling less comforted than usual, facing more arguments, unpredictable parental behaviour and disrupted bedtime routines.

Whilst many parents strive to set a good example with their alcohol use, 15% children had asked their parents to drink less and 16% of parents reported feeling guilty or ashamed of their parenting as a result of their drinking. More than half (51%) of parents reported being tipsy, and 29% being drunk, in front of their child. Children surveyed who had seen their parent tipsy or drunk were less likely to consider the way their parent drinks alcohol as providing a positive role model for them.

Commenting on the report, Katherine Brown, Chief Executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies said:

“All parents strive to do what’s best for their children, so it’s important to share this research about the effects drinking can have on parenting, and what steps parents can take to protect their children.

“Children are exposed to a barrage of marketing messages that glamourise drinking with strong links to sport and pop music. Parents have a tough job on their hands teaching children about the negative side of alcohol. Hopefully this study will help inform guidance that enables parents to make fully informed choices about their own drinking in front of their children.”

Rt Hon Caroline Flint, MP for Don Valley, said:
“While relatively small numbers of children reported the most worrying impacts, this study clearly shows that children know a lot about their parents drinking, and that the more parents drink the higher the likelihood of their child facing a problem. It seems likely that many parents do not realise this.

“We too quickly dismiss parental drinking as harmless fun and relaxation, but this report shows that parents do not need to be regularly drinking large amount for their children to see a change in their behaviour and experience problems. I’d like to see a more open conversation about this, among parents and professionals.”

Children whose parents were in higher socio-economic groups were more likely to report that their parent hides their drinking from them, and that their parent has argued with them more than normal as a result of their drinking.

Children showed an astute awareness of their parents’ drinking, with reports of how much their parents drank matching up accurately with parental responses in the majority of cases. Children described their views on why their parents drank, with 11 and 12 year olds describing alcohol as “like sugar for adults” with parents drinking to “solve their problems”.

Self-medication with alcohol was described as commonly accepted in UK society, raising concerns amongst experts and practitioners. It was argued that a permissive, pro-alcohol environment has led to normalisation of drinking in a range of settings and a “cultural blindness” to alcohol harm, masking issues which may affect children and making it more difficult to intervene.

The study found that positive parenting practices can protect against negative impacts experienced by children linked to drinking. A highly accessible and aware parental style reduced the likelihood of a child having asked their parent to drink less, regardless of parental consumption level.

Read more about the affects of alcohol in our factsheet.

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