Opinion Former Article

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

A new report published today 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’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield OBE, said:

“Children with hidden vulnerabilities are one of my priorities. Often these are children facing issues that are unknown or ignored, so it’s essential that more research is carried out into their outcomes.

“The impact of parental drinking on children needs to be given the attention it deserves and this report makes an important contribution to this debate.”

Viv Evans, of the Alcohol and Families Alliance, said:

“We recognise that parenting is difficult and we live in a culture which is remarkably accepting of alcohol. 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.”

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said:

“These days, far more drinking takes place in living rooms than pubs, with three quarters of all alcohol in Scotland sold by supermarkets and off-licences. This means children are more likely to be around alcohol and to witness drunkenness. As well as the negative impacts on children’s wellbeing, seeing how adults drink can have a big influence on our children’s future drinking habits.

“It’s time for effective action to protect children and families from alcohol that is too cheap, readily available and constantly promoted.”

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.

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Notes to Editors:

“Like sugar for adults” presents data from a nationally representative online survey completed by 997 parents and their children, focus groups and a public inquiry involving experts and practitioners. The full report and findings can be found here: http://bit.ly/sugar4adults 

The report will be launched in Parliament today at an event sponsored by Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP.

Dependent drinkers were excluded from the sample taking part in this survey, and overall the sample was made up of relatively light drinkers. The majority of parents surveyed reported consumption levels within the Chief Medical Officer's low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units per week.

Key findings from the report include:

Children demonstrate awareness of parental drinking habits and their motivations for drinking:

Children were more likely to suggest their parents drunk to escape their problems or because it helps them when they feel depressed or nervous if their parent gave this reason for drinking.

Being tipsy or drunk in front of children:

29% of parents reported having been drunk in front of their child.
51% of parents reported having been tipsy in front of their child.
29% of parents thought it was ok to get drunk in front their child as long as it did not happen regularly.
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 – regardless of how much their parent usually drunk.

The more parents drunk, the more likely children were to experience a range of harms, beginning from relatively low levels of drinking:

As a result of their parent’s drinking:
18% of children had felt embarrassed.
11% of children had felt worried.
7% of children said their parents had argued with them more than usual.
8% of children said their parents had been more unpredictable.
12% of children said their parents had paid them less attention.
15% of children said their bedtime routine had been disrupted; either by being put to bed earlier or later than usual.

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Habib Kadiri
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Institute of Alcohol Studies
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Email: hkadiri@ias.org.uk  Tel: 0207 222 4001
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