From the December 2017 issue

Parents’ Moderate Drinking Upsets Kids

That's according to new findings by the UK's Institute of Alcohol Studies. But what's considered 'moderate,' exactly – and just how much does it impact kids?

“But you’re having juice.”

That’s what Natalie Szuba’s 2 1/2-year-old daughter proclaimed one night when mom told her she’d have to choose milk or water to drink with her meal.

But it wasn’t juice in this Plymouth mom’s glass. It was white wine – something she drinks occasionally with dinner or to unwind after a long day. “It’s me time,” she says. “That’s my therapy.”

It’s not uncommon for parents to relax with a glass of wine or bottle of beer. And these days, more moms openly express their love of vino to escape a bit. But findings from the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK show even moderate alcohol consumption can have a negative impact.

Children felt embarrassed and worried when their parents drank, researchers report. A percentage even felt their parents paid less attention to them and said their bedtime routine had been disrupted.

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Szuba feels that’s no issue for her.

“If it’s every night and the parent is acting differently, then it’s a concern,” she says. “But if it’s not a problem with their routine, then it’s not a big deal.” So – when does it become a bigger issue?

‘Like sugar for adults’

When it comes to defining moderate drinking, Cynthia Reynolds, a licensed master social worker and executive director of First Family Counseling in Detroit and Bingham Farms, says it’s typically two to three drinks – but there’s another factor.

“It depends on the size of a person. If you have a 250-pound man, three beers is fine.” That same amount could send a smaller-framed woman over the edge.

The UK study, called Like Sugar for Adults, gathered details from an online survey of nearly 1,000 parents and their kids, along with focus groups with kids ages 11-17, and considered only “non-dependent” drinking. Researchers found drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week – the UK’s government-recommended “low-risk” guideline – can be damaging to kids. That’s about six to eight cans of beer, a bottle-and-a-half of wine or eight shots’ worth of liquor consumed over the course of a week.

Of the study participants, 29 percent of parents reported having been drunk in front of their kids while 51 percent have been “tipsy.” Another 29 percent thought it was OK to be inebriated in front of their child – as long as it wasn’t a regular habit.

However, if a child was to see his or her parent drunk or tipsy, he or she was less likely to consider his or her parents positive role models. Also, 8 percent of kids felt their parents became more unpredictable as they drank.

“The behavior that they described regarding the moderate drinking is more the issue,” Reynolds says of the study’s findings – for example, if mom is typically quiet-natured but becomes loud and obnoxious when drinking.

Drink responsibly

Szuba isn’t concerned that her occasional glass of wine will negatively impact her daughter. It’s about moderation, she says. Plus, the mom of one says she’s never been drunk in front of her daughter and doesn’t drink at all when her husband is out of town.

On an evening when mom does have a glass of “mommy juice,” her daughter’s routine remains intact, she says.

“I still put her to bed, I still do everything I normally do,” Szuba says, adding that she would understand the concern if it impacted her child’s routine.

Here in the U.S., moderate drinking is considered up to one drink a day for women and two for men, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A “drink” is 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces (one shot) of liquor.

But ultimately, it’s all about being responsible, Reynolds says.

“If there is a noticeable behavior or mood change, then that’s probably not responsible,” Reynolds says. “If you’re getting feedback from people who care about you about your drinking,” she says, then it’s a problem.

In general, if kids question why you drink, explain your reasons, notes the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – “whether it is to enhance a meal, share good times with friends or celebrate a special occasion,” its website says. “Point out that if you choose to drink, it is always in moderation.” And, of course, stress that underage drinking is against the law.

If your child has concerns, Reynolds says, ask her what her worries are, why she feels that way – and then explain things.

“Keep the communication with your children open,” Reynolds says. Even if you don’t think it’s a big deal, if kids broach the subject or you notice a change in their behavior, address it. “If a kid brings it up, maybe you need to reevaluate your alcohol usage.”

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