Skip to main content

“Like sugar for adults”: The effect of non-dependent parental drinking on children & families

This mixed methods study analysed data generated from a public inquiry, four focus groups, and an online survey representative of the UK population. The survey included linked answers from 997 parents, and their children. These methods were employed to explore the gap identified in the literature, and examine the effect of lower end parental drinking on children. Dependent drinkers were excluded from the survey.

Public inquiry findings
►► Too much attention is paid to the amount and pattern of parental drinking, frequently neglecting the actual impact of parental drinking on children, and mitigating factors such as family context.
►► Parental drinking can have a range of emotional and other impacts on children, many of which are highly personalised but with common themes.
►► Many parents assume their children do not notice their drinking, so the negative impacts caused are often unintentional, and there is a need to explore the contribution alcohol makes to child emotional and/or physical neglect.
►► A permissive pro-alcohol environment has led to normalisation of drinking in a range of settings and ‘culture blindness’ to alcohol harm, masking issues which may affect children.

Online survey and focus group findings

For analysis, the online survey sample was split based on their reported consumption, creating lower, middle and upper tiers (each equating to approximately a third) within the sample. However, the sample was predominantly made up of relatively light drinkers. None within the lower and middle tiers reported consumption which exceeded the Chief Medical Officer’s low risk drinking guidelines; this was also true for the majority of the upper tier.

Parental influence

►► Parental drinking practices appear to be reflected in children’s attitudes towards alcohol and drinking. Children demonstrate awareness of parental motivations for drinking.
►► A highly accessible and aware parental style was found to have a protective effect against negative impacts for children resulting from their parent’s drinking. Having parents in a less affluent social group was also found to have a protective effect.

Parental consumption

►► While relatively small numbers of children reported the most worrying impacts, there is a clear gradient with increasing proportions of children reporting problems in line with increasing parental consumption. This included a parent being more unpredictable than usual, arguing with a parent more than normal, or a disrupted bedtime routine.
►► Parents in the upper consumption tier within this sample were around 3 times more likely than others to have been asked by their children to drink less; both a highly accessible and aware parental style and having parents in a less affluent social group, were protective factors for this, limiting negative impacts for children resulting from their parent’s drinking.
►► Children of these upper consumption tier parents were more likely than children of lower consumption tier parents to report feeling worried and embarrassed as a result of their parents drinking.
►► However, children of all parents regardless of drinking levels were more likely to report both of these emotions if they had seen their parent tipsy or drunk – the
strength of this effect appeared to be similar for both states.

Seeing a parent tipsy or drunk

►► If a child had seen their parent tipsy or drunk, they were less likely to consider the way their parent drinks alcohol as providing a positive role model for them. This effect held across all levels of parents’ alcohol consumption in this sample. While this effect was stronger in children who had seen their parent drunk rather than tipsy, the difference was not substantial – seeing a parent tipsy or drunk appeared to have a similar effect on children.
►► Children of parents in all consumption tiers in this sample were more likely to report experiencing at least one of a range of negative impacts from their parent’s drinking (including arguing with a parent more than normal, feeling worried or embarrassed, or a disrupted bedtime routine) if they had seen their parent tipsy or drunk. The strength of this effect appeared to be similar for both states.
►► There were clear differences between those children who had seen their parent either tipsy or drunk, and those who had not. However, the effect on children appear to be broadly comparable between these two states.

Conclusion

►► While relatively small numbers of children in our study reported the most worrying impacts, we identified a clear gradient with more children reporting problems in line with increasing parental consumption.
►► As these findings are drawn from a sample overwhelmingly drinking below the CMO’s low risk drinking guidelines, this suggests that such impacts can begin from relatively low levels of parental alcohol consumption.
►► 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. Children do not seem to differentiate between seeing their parents tipsy and drunk.
►► Echoing previous research, this shows it may be wrong to assume that negative impacts of parental drinking are only associated with higher levels of consumption.