Parents’ Moderate Drinking Upsets Kids

The UK's Institute of Alcohol Studies notes parents' moderate drinking can affect kids. But what is 'moderate,' exactly, and how problematic is it?

Grabbing a wine or a beer in front of the kids seems like no big deal. But can parents’ moderate drinking have a bigger impact on our kids than we might suspect?

Our kids are definitely watching us for cues – as mom Natalie Szuba of Plymouth knows firsthand. She recalls a time when her then-2-year-old daughter proclaimed, “But you’re having juice.”

This was in response to mom telling her she’d have to choose milk or water to drink with her kid-sized meal. Only it wasn’t juice in Szuba’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 moms and dads to relax with a glass of wine, bottle of beer or a parenting cocktail. And, whether it’s at home or going out to a kid-friendly bar, children definitely get exposure to those “now and then” adult beverages of ours. No big deal, though, right?

Maybe – but maybe not. Findings from the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK in 2017 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.

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 parents’ moderate drinking 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,” she explains. “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. To define parents’ moderate drinking, it 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.”

This post was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Metro Parent magazine and is lightly updated regularly.


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