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COVER STORY – One in three children report negative outcomes from parents’ drinking

Even moderate drinking by parents may impact kids

04 November 2019 – Research published in the Alcohol & Alcoholism journal suggests that children experience negative outcomes as a result of their parents’ alcohol use, even amongst moderate drinkers. In a survey of almost 1,000 UK parents and their children aged 10-17, more than a third (35%) of children reported at least one adverse consequence as a result of their parents’ drinking.

In the survey, children were presented with a range of negative outcomes that they could attribute to their parents’ drinking: 12% reported parents giving them less attention than usual, 11% reported being put to bed later than usual, and 8% reported thinking that parents argue more than normal. In the survey parents were asked not only how much they drank, but how often they drank for a range of reasons, including both positive and negative. While 95% of parents reported instances of drinking because it is relaxing or makes them feel happier, around three in five claimed to have consumed alcohol to help them cope with feelings of depression and to escape problems (60% and 59% respectively).

Children of parents drinking for predominantly negative reasons were more likely to report experiencing at least one negative outcome. This research also confirmed findings from a previous grey literature publication that the more parents drink (beginning from only moderate levels) the more likely children were to report one of these negative outcomes, and that children who had witnessed their parents tipsy or drunk were more likely to report experiencing negative outcomes following their parent’s drinking – irrespective of how much their parent drank overall.

Eric Appleby, chair of the Alcohol and Families Alliance (a cross-sector alliance of more than 40 organisations including the NSPCC, Nacoa, and Adfam), welcomed the research:

‘The finding that a third of children have experienced a negative outcome from their parents’ drinking should trouble the government. The resources and support available to parents who want to learn more about or address their drinking are inadequate.

‘We need evidence-based support for families affected by alcohol and evidence-based guidance on parental and family member drinking and its effect on children, including at low levels – calls the Alcohol and Families Alliance have been making for some time.’

Lead author of the paper, IAS Research & Policy Officer Lucy Bryant told Reuters: ‘We needed to understand the effect this drinking could have on children,’ adding that further research is needed to find out why the impact of parents’ drinking seemed lower in 14- to 17-year-olds.

‘It is possible the older age-group truly experience less harm, but it is also likely some of the negative outcomes we presented, for example, playing less, might not have resonated with them,’ Bryant said.

Bryant also called for the official guidance on alcohol focused on children and young people to be updated so parents could make ‘informed decisions’.

You can listen to the study's lead author (Lucy Bryant) talk about the research findings in our Alcohol Alert podcast.