A ‘substantial proportion’ of UK children live with parents who aren’t dependent on alcohol but who still drink at moderate levels, the study authors say.
“We needed to understand the effect this drinking could have on children,” co-author Lucy Bryant of the Institute of Alcohol Studies in London.
Bryant’s team surveyed 997 adults and 997 children ages 10 to 17 (one parent and child in a household). Parents were asked how much alcohol they consumed and how often they drank for reasons both negative and positive. The children were asked if they had ever seen their parent ‘tipsy’ or ‘drunk,’ and whether the drinking affected parents’ behaviour.
Overall, 51% of the children had seen their parent tipsy and 31% had seen the parent drunk, the researchers reported in Alcohol and Alcoholism.
More than a third of the children – 35% – named at least one negative effect of their parent’s drinking.
Children most commonly reported getting less attention (12%) and being put to bed later than usual (11%). They also felt parents argued more (8%) and behaved in a more unpredictable way (8%).
Fifty-six per cent of parents said they sometimes drink to relax or feel happier, and 29% said that was almost always the reason they drank. About 1 in 4 said they sometimes drink when they feel depressed or nervous, or to escape their problems.
Children were more than twice as likely to report a negative outcome when parents reported drinking for negative reasons.
The more alcohol parents regularly consumed, the more likely children were to report negative outcomes. When parents were divided into 3 groups based on how much alcohol they consumed in the last 28 days, children whose parents drank at the medium level (between 8 and 26 drinks) were 71% more likely than those of lower-consumption parents to report negative outcomes.
And children whose parents drank at the highest level (more than 26 drinks in the last 28 days) were more than twice as likely to report negative outcomes as children whose parents drank less.
The impact of parents’ drinking seemed lower in 14- to 17-year-olds, but the authors said further research is needed to find out why.
“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.
The findings contribute to growing evidence about the harm to children whose parents’ drinking stays within guideline-recommended limits, said Emmert Roberts, MRC Clinical Research Fellow in the National Addiction Centre, King’s College London.
The study doesn’t prove parents’ drinking directly caused negative experiences in children, he said. “It could also be due to something else, not linked to the alcohol,” said Roberts, who was not part of the current study.
Roberts also noted that based on the survey questions, the researchers can’t be sure none of the parents in the study were problem drinkers.
And while the parents matched the demographic profile of UK adults, they might not match the profile of UK parents, the researchers acknowledge.
Even so, they say, the findings could help parents and policymakers take steps to reduce the impact on children.
Roberts said a broader alcohol strategy is needed.
“We need to think about tackling alcohol at a public health level, thinking about its affordability and availability and the way alcohol is marketed,” he added.
“By tackling those things at a population level, we can hope to reduce the overall amount of alcohol harming society, both for individuals who drink and those who don’t such as their children.”