How kids feel when their parents get 'tipsy'

Even moderate drinking by parents can worry children.
Even moderate drinking by parents can worry children. Photo: Shutterstock

We've all been schooled on the importance of not drinking to excess in front of our children, but now a recent study has advised parents to reconsider drinking in front of their kids at all. The research, released by the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK shined a spotlight on alcohol usage by parents - and the results were eye-opening. 

The study titled "Like sugar for adults: The effect of non-dependent parental drinking on children and families" drew on the responses of 1,000 parents and 1,000 children, as well as focus groups, including experts and practitioners. Only "lower end" parental drinking was examined, with those dependent on alcohol excluded from the final analysis. 

Many of the children surveyed said that seeing their parents drunk or tipsy made them think less of them as a role model, regardless of how much alcohol the 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. Interestingly, the report notes that kids do not seem to differentiate between seeing their parents "tipsy" and seeing them drunk.

"That comparable effects are noted for children seeing their parents tipsy or drunk suggest the way in which parents and their children view episodes of 'tipsy' drinking is quite different from one another," the authors write.

The survey uncovered that children can be affected even by low levels of parental alcohol consumption, in a number of different ways. Eighteen per cent of kids said they felt embarrassed by their parents' behaviour when drinking and 11 per cent said they felt worried. 

"They will often say things like 'I made sure there was some water and headache tablets next to the bed before I left for school'. So they know - and they take that anxiety and worry into school", one practitioner noted of the anxiety caused by mum and dad drinking too much.

Kids aren't just impacted psychologically, however, the consequences of parental drinking are clear in other areas, too. 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.

"We recognise that parenting is difficult and we live in a culture which is remarkably accepting of alcohol," said Viv Evans, of the Alcohol and Families Alliance in the UK. "We hope that this study goes some way to supporting parents in a difficult job, and alerting us all to the importance of preventing problems with alcohol before they arise."

The report also highlighted concerns around the acceptance and normalisation of drinking, particularly as it relates to parenting - and coping with the stress of parenthood.

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"If you are able to look and think 'oh, everybody else on Mumsnet is talking about wine-o-clock as being 5 o'clock when you've got the kids home and you've got tea and bath time and that's going to help you get through', that is a bit of an indicator really of things being quite problematic but we're not addressing that as a cultural issue," one practitioner noted.

However it's not just confined to parenting forums or posting a "mummy wine meme" on social media. Kids are picking up on these messages, too. "I know my parents always say, 'Well, once you have some children, you will need to drink," one child said in a focus groups for kids aged 11 to 13 years.

Rt Hon Caroline Flint, MP for Don Valley, who launched the report, said many parents weren't aware of what impact their drinking might have on their kids. "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," she said, adding that a more open conversation about the issue, among both parents and professionals is needed.

Beyond opening up dialogue however, the authors pose a number of other clear recommendations for parents:

  • Don't give your kids alcohol before the age of 18: There is no evidence that allowing children small amounts of alcohol with a family meal encourages a better relationship with alcohol when they are older. In fact, research shows that it is associated with binge-drinking and alcohol-related problems over time. As such, parents should provide an "alcohol-free childhood" and delay the age at which kids first have a drink.
  • Consider how much you drink around your kids and the way you talk about alcohol: While parents might think talking about their own "drunkenness" or hangovers may discourage their kids from drinking, research points to the fact that it could in fact have the opposite effect, "encouraging and legitimising" drinking to excess. The authors also reiterate that children who have seen their parents either tipsy or drunk are "more likely to think that they provide them with a negative role model regarding their drinking."
  • Familiarise yourself with the health risks of alcohol - and talk to your kids about these risks: "Parents who combine warm, two-way conversations and consistent, clear, enforced rules and high supervision, seem best placed to develop secure emotional bonds with their children in a way which could be protective against problematic alcohol use," the authors write. The report also notes children seem to be more receptive to parental influence between seven and 12 years, making this the ideal time for these conversations to take place.