Parents drink less alcohol than non-parents, but are more likely to drink at home

Parents are drinking less than those without kids.
Parents are drinking less than those without kids. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

The panic over mummy "wine-time" memes, may well be unfounded, according to new research which found that parents - particularly mums - are actually drinking less than adults who don't have children.

The findings come from the South Australia Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and have been published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.

According to lead researcher, PhD candidate Jacqueline Bowden, on average, parents are 25 per cent less likely to put their long-term health at risk due to alcohol use. "We found parents are less likely to drink more than the recommended limit of two standard drinks per day, and also less likely to "binge" drink, which is classified as more than four standard drinks on the one occasion," Ms Bowden said.

The data, which was drawn from the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, also showed that mums are most likely to follow recommended intake levels when their kids are less than two years old, between six and 11 years old or 15 years and over.

The pattern for fathers was different, however. Fathers were just as likely to exceed the guidelines for lifetime risk as men without kids - with one exception. Dads with children under two years old were less likely to exceed the guideline for short-term risk than non-fathers.

And, if you've ever been hungover with a baby, then you'll probably understand why.

There was one key difference between the drinking behaviour of parents and non-parents, however.

"While we found fewer parents exceeding the guidelines for drinking alcohol, we also found that parents were more likely to drink alcohol at home (84.6 per cent) than non-parents (79.6 per cent)," Ms Bowden said.  But she acknowledges that there's a pretty simple explanation for that. "That's perfectly understandable given parents, particularly of young children, are less likely to go out."

What Ms Bowden and her colleagues did find interesting however, was the way mothers' drinking behaviours changed depending on their child's age. "The most surprising finding was the fact mothers with children heading into primary school and mothers of children aged 15 years and over were less likely to consume alcohol in excess of health guidelines than non-mothers," she says, explaining that "Classical Role Theory" may underlie the findings.

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What exactly does that mean in English? Put simply, it's the parenting/work juggle.

"The greater the number of roles a person has (i.e. women returning to the workforce at the time their children start attending school), the less they will engage in higher volume drinking" Ms Bowden notes. When it comes to mums of teens, however, she says there's likely to be a different reason. "It is highly probable (but more research is required) that when the child is aged 15 years and over, mothers may be responsible for transporting their children to parties and social engagements, and they may also see themselves more as role models when their children are this age," she says.

But while parents might get a gold star over non-parents when it comes to exceeding alcohol guidelines, the authors warn that there are still many Aussie kids whose parents consume alcohol in excess on a regular basis. Approximately one in four Aussie fathers and one in ten Aussie mothers are drinking more than two standard drinks on average per day. And with much of that occurring in the home, what is needed is more research into the impact of this on our kids.

"The next step for us is to study whether that drinking in the home is in front of children, because we know how strongly parental behaviour influences children," Ms Bowden says. "Parents are really important role models when it comes to influencing their child's relationship with alcohol so we need to think about our drinking in front of their kids, even though that may be a little uncomfortable."

As such, she offers the following tips:

  • Parents should try to limit drinking in front of kids where possible (especially getting drunk)
  • Avoid glamorising alcohol through stories about your own or other peoples' drinking
  • Avoid talking about drinking as a way to reduce stress.
  • Parents should also try not to make drinking a key part of events and provide food and non-alcoholic beverages to guests.

Last year, research from the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK found that many of the 1,000 children surveyed, reported that seeing their parents drunk or tipsy made them think less of them as a role model, regardless of how much alcohol their parent had consumed. 

Twenty nine per cent of parents reported that they thought it was okay to get drunk in front of their children as long as it wasn't a regular occurrence. More than a quarter (29 per cent) said they had been drunk in front of their children and 51 per cent admitted being tipsy. The report also noted that kids do not seem to differentiate between seeing their parents "tipsy" and seeing them drunk.

For 15 per cent of parents, kids' bedtimes had been pushed back after a drink or two of an evening. Arguing more than usual with their parents as a result of booze was true for around seven per cent of kids surveyed, with 7.5 per cent also admitting their parents argued more between themselves after consuming alcohol.

For more information, consult the The Australian Parenting Guidelines for Adolescent Alcohol Misuse