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The impact of parental drinking on children – a conversation we should start

Lucy Bryant, author of study looking into parental drinking's impact on children, has some suggestions for how the government could better protect people from harm

06 November 2019 – The results of a research study I conducted – with Anne Marie MacKintosh from the University of Stirling and Professor Linda Bauld from the University of Edinburgh – were published in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism. They showed that children can experience negative outcomes as a result of their parents’ alcohol use – including the children of moderate drinkers. More than a third (35%) of children in a survey of almost 1,000 UK parents and their children aged 10-17 reported at least one adverse consequence – like being made late for school or arguing with your parents more than usual – as a result of their parents’ drinking. Most of our sample of parents reported drinking within the CMO’s low risk drinking guidelines.

We also learnt what might make a child more likely to report one of these negative outcomes. The more a parent drank, the more likely the child was to report these. Similarly, a child was more likely to report a negative outcome if they’d ever seen their parent tipsy or drunk. Not only this, but children of parents drinking for predominantly negative reasons – like to escape their problems or to cope when feeling depressed or anxious – were more likely to report a negative outcome.

Where does this leave us? We already know that the home is a key site where children learn about alcohol, and these findings show not only that children of even moderate drinkers are experiencing harm through their parents’ drinking, but that children are connecting these instances to alcohol.* So I believe this research should act as a call to action for the government; they should update their advice published for parents to include these findings to ensure parents are equipped with the most up to date information to make informed decisions that are right for their children – all families are different. The Alcohol and Families Alliance (AFA) makes such a call in their Families First report, which I support.

But these findings are only a small part of what we know about how we might protect children from alcohol harm. So, I would support the government in taking more decisive action: 

  • Children exposed to alcohol marketing have been shown to drink earlier, more, and in riskier ways than they otherwise would. Criticism has been levied at the current self-regulatory framework for alcohol marketing for its failure to protect children from this content. A government serious about the protection of children from alcohol harm would revisit this system urgently, and place it on statutory footing, run by an independent regulator.
  • Alcohol treatment services have suffered significant cuts in recent years and provision does not meet current need. Similarly, there is little support available for the families of those seeking this treatment. As the AFA notes, where there is support for families, children see 'improvements in their aspirations for the future, self confidence and esteem, ability to deal with change, and educational attainment'. I support the AFA’s call for the introduction of a national minimum standard of 'evidence-based support for families affected by alcohol available according to local need'.
  • For any parent, in order to begin to consider how their drinking might affect their children, they must face the significant stigma that exists surrounding conversations about alcohol use.** I support the AFA in calling for a mass media campaign address this, removing barriers to those seeking treatment – or wishing to learn more about their own drinking choices.

Written by Research & Policy Officer Lucy Bryant.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.


* We asked children not just if they had experienced the negative impacts that we presented to them, but whether these had occurred as a result of their parents’ drinking.

** Schomerus, G., Lucht, M., Holzinger, A., Matschinger, H., Carta, M. & Angermeyer, M. (2010) The Stigma of Alcohol Dependence Compared with Other Mental Disorders: A Review of Population Studies. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 46(2), pp.105-112.; Naughton, F. et al (2008) Accessing treatment for problem alcohol users: Why the delay? Gloucestershire Community Research Unit.; Adfam (2012) Challenging Stigma: Tackling the prejudice experienced by the families of drug and alcohol users. Adfam.