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“Does my drinking affect how my child drinks? Should we stop drinking or not drink around them?”

One of the talks that I’ve written to deliver at Information Evenings this year attempts to answer the five top questions I get asked by parents about alcohol based on the most recent research findings. The talk will cover questions about the provision of a ‘sip of alcohol’, whether allowing a child to drink at a wedding or a NYE celebration is appropriate and the latest information on alcohol and the teen brain. One query that regularly comes up is about the impact, both positive and negative, parental drinking has on a child. Some of the questions I get asked in this area include the following:

  • “Should I stop drinking around my child? Am I sending the wrong message when I drink alcohol?”
  • “We always take a bottle of wine out with us when we go out for dinner. What message is that sending to our kids?”
  • “We don’t drink a lot, mainly with meals … is our daughter learning anything positive from that?”

Firstly, most parents start thinking about this issue far too late. From the moment they’re born children are learning by watching the world around them and by the time they’re toddlers, they’ll be constantly asking questions. Parents are their children’s first and most important teacher. Every word and action, even at a very early age, will help shape their ideas in all sorts of areas, including alcohol. To start worrying about drinking in front of them when they hit their teens is most probably a bit of waste of time – they’ve picked up an awful lot of information already.

More importantly, why should you stop drinking in front of them? You’re an adult and, as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you can do what you wish. If alcohol is a part of your life, trying to hide that from your child makes little sense. It’s a legal product and it plays a significant role in many Australians’ lives. As already said, your child learns so much from you, both positive and negative. If you and your partner drink responsibly, your child is likely to learn something from that. Of course, if you drink to excess or regularly come home drunk from social events, that is a completely different story. If you have reached a point in your life when you want to stop drinking and it just so happens to coincide with your child entering their teens – fantastic, go for it! But if you still enjoy a drink and you don’t want to stop, it makes little sense …

So, what does the research about the impact of parental drinking on their children is? Well, the good news is that as far as light to moderate drinking is concerned, Mahedy and colleagues found there is “no support for an association between parental alcohol use during childhood and conduct and emotional problems during childhood or adolescence”. In terms of major behavioural issues, if you drink in moderation, your child is not going to be affected. As far as impact of your drinking on your child’s future drinking is concerned, however, the evidence is not so positive. A 2016 review of the literature by Rossow and others found the following – Almost all prospective studies on this topic have found that parental drinking predicts drinking behaviour in their children; that is, when one or both parents drink more, their offspring are more likely to report more drinking or more alcohol-related problems later on than others …”

Essentially, the more parents drink, the more the child will drink and the more problems they’ll have with their drinking in the future. Although the authors of this study said that this could be due to other factors such as where you live, cultural or religious factors or even genetics, it’s pretty clear that your attitudes and values around alcohol are going to have an impact on how your child views the issue, as well as their drinking behaviour. Interestingly, studies have found that the impact of parental drinking could be mediated by specific parenting practices, such as parental monitoring, (i.e., knowing where your child is, knowing who they’re with and when they’ll be home) and discipline. Talking about alcohol with your child also had a positive impact. These strategies had the greatest impact in early adolescence, with the impact being greater at 14 than when they were older. So what this essentially means is that if you’re worried that your child could have picked up some potentially negative attitudes around alcohol from you, putting some basic parenting strategies into place in their early teens could reduce the risk of problems developing in the future.

A 2013 study examined parental alcohol role modelling and its impact on binge drinking and found that the ” … most important factors in the alcohol socialization process are parental alcohol behaviour. Alcohol habits with a high frequency but low intake per occasion seem to be transmitted to offspring in the same manner as binge drinking, and these drinking practices followed our respondents into adulthood.” Children were continuing to pick up their parents’ drinking behaviours during their teens, but most disturbingly, these were being taken into adulthood.

So, the evidence is pretty clear that you do have a major influence on your child’s future drinking behaviour and you should never underestimate that influence, even during the teen years. You may not think your teenager cares about what you do or say during adolescence, but research shows that even though peers are becoming much more important, you will always play an important role in your child’s life.

With that in mind, here are some of the simple things you can do to be a positive role model around alcohol and socializing are as follows:

  • limit your alcohol use whenever you can. It’s not necessarily about stopping drinking but ‘get smart’ in this area and always remember, children don’t only pick-up bad habits from watching you and others, they can also learn a lot from observing ‘responsible drinking’
  • do not get drunk, especially in front of your children
  • sometimes decline the offer of alcohol. This is a great one and can involve just quietly putting your hand over the top of a glass at a family ‘get-together’ or the like and saying “I’m not drinking tonight.” Don’t try to make it a grand gesture – it needs to come naturally and not look like you’re making a supreme sacrifice (you’re not curing cancer!). But when your child sees you refuse a drink in a social situation they get the message that you don’t always need alcohol to socialize – so simple, yet so powerful
  • provide food and non-alcoholic beverages if making alcohol available to guests. Always try to link alcohol with food when you can. Not only does eating slow down absorption of alcohol, helping to prevent poisoning and the like, it also sends the message to young people that drinking should not be an isolated activity
  • organize events with family or friends where alcohol is not available. This is a great for parents of younger children, but it needs to be said it can be difficult to do, with many parents telling me that if they say ‘no alcohol’, people don’t attend! Scary but true!
  • never drink and drive
  • don’t portray alcohol as a way to deal with stress. If they’re going to drink alcohol, you want them to do it for the ‘right’ reasons. Drinking to ‘cope’ or de-stress is not healthy. Flopping down in front of the TV on a Friday night after a big week and saying “I need a glass of wine” is not good modelling. Of course, sometimes it’s just going to happen – you’re not perfect – but if you can avoid it, that’s great. Try to model healthy ways to cope with stress without alcohol, e.g., exercise, listening to music, or talking things over

Remember, you’re your child’s first and most important teacher. They learn from watching you and others around them from a very early age. You’re not going to get it right all of the time but doing a couple of simple things can really lay down some great foundations for the future.

Mahedy, L., Hammerton, G., Teyhan, A., Edwards, A.C., Kendler, K.S., Moore, S.C., Hickman, M., Macleod, J., & Heron, J. (2017). Parental alcohol use and risk of behavioral and emotional problems in offspring. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0178862.
Pedersen, W. & von Soest, T. (2013). Socialization to binge drinking: A population-based, longitudinal study with emphasis on parental influences. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 133, 587-592.
Rossow, R. Keating, P., Lambert, F., & McCambridge, J. (2016). Does parental drinking influence children’s drinking? A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Addiction 111, 204–217.

Published: February 2018

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