The crucial role of parents in shaping their children’s attitudes to and use of alcohol

Drinkaware Research Focus Blog

4 minute read.

A recurring theme identified in the story of the Maynooth Evaluation of the JC-AEP (and not necessarily something that the research team set out to examine), is that of parents’ and guardians’ role in underage drinking in Ireland. There is a potential role for parents in inadvertently enabling or being seen to enable drinking. 

Existing research shows that parents’ have a crucial role in shaping their children’s attitudes towards and use of alcohol. There are two issues that are intertwined namely: 

  1. Parents’ own behaviours and attitudes to their own drinking  
  1. Parents’ tolerance of their teenagers’ drinking  

From a young age, children are more likely to report negative outcomes such as relational tensions if exposed to parents drinking and witnessing them either ‘tipsy’ or ‘drunk’ (Bryant et al, 2020).  Parents drinking motivations have been shown to have a direct effect on the alcohol expectancies of 10-13 year olds and in turn shaping their young adolescents’ future drinking motivations (Smit et al 2020).  

Parents’ hazardous drinking has been found to predict adolescent hazardous drinking (Sharmin et al 2019). Within the Irish context, one study found adolescents to be three times as likely to be classed as hazardous drinkers if their fathers engaged in hazardous drinking (Murphy et al, 2016). However, we know from our own research that many adults are unaware of how much they are drinking with unintentional hazardous drinking taking place in the home  

Recent research by the ESRI identified that positive relationships with parents are an important protective factor in influencing adolescent behaviour. A lot of parents tend to look to their own experience to help their children rather than the research e.g., many parents think it’s ok to introduce alcohol in the home under supervision when there is no research to support that. While some parents may choose to introduce their children to alcohol in the home setting, evidence suggests that any amount of alcohol given to a child or adolescent acts as a serious risk factor for future adolescent binge drinking and suffering from alcohol related harms (Aiken et al, 2020; Boland et al, 2020; Clare et al, 2020). Not only does parental supply of alcohol increase the risk of binge drinking and alcohol related harms, but it also increases the frequency of binge drinking and the number of alcohol related harms experienced (Clare et al. 2020).  

Alcohol-specific parental communication is associated with increased protective behavioural strategies such as limiting/stopping drinking when drinking, manner of drinking and serious harm reduction behavioural strategies (Litt et al. 2020). Setting strict and clear rules regarding alcohol consumption helps to delay the onset of adolescent drinking (Hurley et al, 2019), as well as less hazardous adolescent drinking (Yuen et al 2021). More information and tips on how to speak with your children is available from our website here.  

Our previous qualitative research that examined at-home drinking pre-COVID found ‘role modelling’ among parents was commonplace with adults not consuming alcohol in their children’s presence, particularly teenagers. However, whether parents are drinking more during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, their children are more likely to see them drink simply because we are all at home a lot more since March 2020 and this has, in turn, the potential to influence future intergenerational transmission of habits and attitudes regarding alcohol misuse (Sigman, 2020). Our 2020 Barometer paper series shows how households with younger age children are showing worrying rises in the frequency of binge drinking during lockdown, as well as a propensity to increasing, or hazardous drinking. We are particularly concerned about any changes in parental drinking patterns as they may contribute towards changing their children’s normative beliefs particularly among adolescents, who can in turn interpret drinking as routine (Garcia & Sanchez 2020). Data on teenagers’ drinking in COVID-19 is emerging too. For instance, the recent Growing up in the West Planet Youth County report Galway 2020 found that among 15-16 year olds, 22% reported consuming more alcohol (20% reporting less). In addition, 56% reported that COVID-19 has impacted negatively on their mental health.  

There is a known link between alcohol consumption and coping amongst adults, and now that children and adolescents are put in circumstances that put them at greater exposure to their parents drinking, the effects of this are worrying. The widely reported pandemic-induced increase in stress and uncertainty in Irish society, juxtaposed with the reduction in socialising and connectedness, have negatively impacted on some people’s coping abilities. Barometer 2020 identified some unhealthy motivations to drink such as drinking to cope, with 77% of parents of pre-school children doing so always/most/half the time during the initial lockdown. Worryingly there is some evidence in the Maynooth University report to suggest a similar (pre-pandemic) motivation for students. For example, 1 in 5 of those who were drinking in 3rd year, agreed with the statement: “I feel less pressure on me when I have a beer or two.”  

There appears to be a disconnect with parents unknowingly drinking more alongside thinking tolerance…. how can we help change this?… In this regard, there is a need to promote and encourage greater engagement with, and support from, parents towards their children’s alcohol education from an early age and with more consistent home-school messaging both now and post COVID-19…. In the context of COVID-19 the urgency for research attention and as part of our education activities going forward, we must therefore consider such changes that may occur and their impact on the behaviour and attitudes of both adults and teenagers in the medium to longer-term. Drinkaware is currently scoping out future research on the space of the home setting as outlined above. 

This is a key part of the work we do at Drinkaware and we are open to working alongside other key stakeholders to help achieve this goal.  

We also look forward to facilitating further debate on alcohol and behavioural change by hosting our next research briefing in Summer 2021 and in so doing, contribute to sharing learnings and knowledge. If you would like to be added to our invite list, please email Dr Ann Stokes, Research & Impacts Manager. We also encourage you to look at the section dedicated to our Research Briefing Series on our website to which any outputs from this and all previous events are added and freely accessible.

Read our blog from Education Manager Martha Sweeney: Parenting Teens -A Call to Action.  


References:

Aiken, A. et al. (2020). Parental supply of sips and whole drinks of alcohol to adolescents and associations with binge drinking and alcohol-related harms: A prospective cohort study. Drug and alcohol dependence, 215, 108204.  

Boland, V. C. et al. (2020). The association between parental supply of alcohol and supply from other sources to young people: a prospective cohort. Addiction, 115(11), 2140-2147. 

Bryant, L., MacKintosh, A. M., & Bauld, L. (2020). An exploration of the impact of non-dependent parental drinking on children. Alcohol and alcoholism, 55(1), 121-127.  

Clare, P. J. et al. (2020). The overall effect of parental supply of alcohol across adolescence on alcohol‐related harms in early adulthood—a prospective cohort study. Addiction, 115(10), 1833-1843. 

Drinkaware (2021) Families, Alcohol & Covid-19 – A detailed analysis of the drinking practices of adults of households with children during the ongoing pandemic. Barometer 2020 Research Paper Series (forthcoming).  

Drinkaware (2020) Understanding (intentional/unintentional) binge drinking at home. www.Drinkaware-Research-Report-Understanding-Binge-Drinking-at-Home-in-Ireland-2020%20(5).pdf 

Garcia, L.P. & Z.M. Sanchez (2020) Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic: a necessary reflection for confronting the situation. Scielo Public Health, 36 (10) 
 

Hurley, E., Dietrich, T., & Rundle-Thiele, S. (2019). A systematic review of parent based programs to prevent or reduce alcohol consumption in adolescents. BMC public health, 19(1), 1-14. 

Litt, D. M. et. al. (2020). Examining the associations between alcohol-related parental communication, alcohol use, and protective behavioral strategy use among young adults. Addictive behaviors, 107, 106398. 

McGilloway, S. & J. Weafer (2021) Evaluation of Drinkaware’s Junior Cycle Alcohol Education Programme (JC AEP) 2018-2020: Summary Report https://www.drinkaware.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Evaluation-of-Drinkaware%E2%80%99s-Junior-Cycle-Alcohol-Education-Programme-JC-AEP-2018-2020.pdf 

Murphy, E., et. al. (2016). The association between parental attitudes and alcohol consumption and adolescent alcohol consumption in Southern Ireland: a cross-sectional study. BMC public health16(1), 1-8.  

Sharmin, S. et al. (2019). Parent hazardous drinking and their children’s alcohol use in early and mid-adolescence: prospective cohort study. European journal of public health, 29(4), 736-740. 

Sigman, A. (2020) Covid-19 and alcohol: parental drinking influences the next generation. British Medical Journal, 369:m2525 

Smit, K. et al. (2020). Alcohol expectancies change in early to middle adolescence as a function of the exposure to parental alcohol use. Drug and alcohol dependence, 211, 107938. 

Smyth, E. & M. Darmody (2021) Risk and protective factors in adolescent behaviour: The role of family, school and neighbourhood characteristics in (mis)behaviour among young people. Dublin: ESRI. 

Western Region Drug and Alcohol Task Force, Planet Youth. (2021) Growing up in the West. Planet Youth county report Galway 2020.https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/34107/  

Yuen, W. S. et al. (2020). Adolescent alcohol use trajectories: Risk factors and adult outcomes. Pediatrics, 146(4).