Are Mom and Dad Drunk?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, power outages, limited transportation, and school and work closings brought neighbors together in a suburban east coast restaurant. Excitement was buzzing around the much-needed TV screens; there was laughter, cheer, and tales of hardships and survival.

Social Drinking
Dining at a central table, two couples and their five children, clearly tweens and teens were enjoying a feast of tacos, nachos, and…Monster Margaritas. Nope, the kids weren’t drinking, but the four adults were visibly intoxicated. The kids were having a great time, laughing at their parents’ loud, slurred speech and silly antics. They pushed the limits while their parents were oblivious.

Kids seeing parents partake in social drinking is commonplace. There are after-work drinks, tailgate parties, brunch cocktails, and specialty spirits for celebrations. According to Columbia University’s 2009 National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XIV: Teens and Parents, one-third of teens have seen one or both of their parents drunk.

Problems with Parent’s Drinking
Many parents believe that drinking in front of and ultimately with their kids serves as a protective factor against kids’ binge-drinking and alcohol abuse, yet research highlights deleterious consequences to parental alcohol-use that are often overlooked. Even as ‘social drinkers’, parents may be less supportive, provide less structure, and generally have less control in the household. These parents become emotionally manipulative or overly intrusive to assert control over children. Individuals who turn to alcohol often suffer from anxiety, depression, emotional difficulties, and/or negative personality traits. Together with alcohol use, these conditions are strongly associated with marital discord; lending to increased household tension and less family warmth. Altogether, these circumstances exacerbate children’s discomfort and acting-out behaviors, planting the seed for a myriad of difficulties throughout their formative years.

Long Term Effects of Drinking
The long term effects of living in a household where parents drink heavily can result in children who:

  1. Do not recognize healthy family interactions and relationships
  2. Have a poor ability to express and manage feelings and emotions
  3. Respond to constructive criticism with fear and ange
  4. Are uncomfortable in the presence of authority figures
  5. Engage in high risk behaviors for excitement
  6. Have poor follow-through on reaching goals
  7. Overreact to changes and challenges
  8. Have difficulties with personal or intimate relationships
  9. Tolerate abuse in relationships
  10. Engage in abusive and compulsive behaviors

Helpful Parenting Strategies Promoting Responsible Attitudes About Drinking:

  • Don’t leave it to media, school, or peers to educate your children on alcohol consumption. Talk early and often about alcohol consumption, moderation, and consequences.
  • If drinking in front of children, stay within moderate limits, model responsible practices: plan for a ride home, consider how many drinks are appropriate. Demonstrate the significance of such decisions and positive practices you want your children to adopt.
  • Set universal non-negotiable rules around alcohol consumption. NO drinking and driving. NO sitting in a car with a driver who has consumed alcohol. NEVER drink if there is a possibility of exposing others to a dangerous situation.
  • Uphold the fact that underage drinking is illegal, not ‘normal experimentation’; educate children on the legal consequences of such violations.
  • Consider the neurobiological significance of alcohol consumption during formative years of brain development, until age 25. Decision-making and judgment are far more vulnerable; as a result, short- and long-term consequences of alcohol consumption are far more dangerous.
  • Recognize that kids may misinterpret your actions. For a 160 lb. adult, one drink with dinner at 5:00 pm may not pose a problem when driving home four hours later; however, your child will likely think, “if mom and dad are OK to drink and drive, I can drink and drive, too.” It also sends a message of being above the law.
  • Model positive approaches to stress relief and celebrations that don’t involve alcohol. Alcohol is not the only answer, nor is it always appropriate.
  • Avoid setting a double standard; do not glorify overindulgence or dependence. Use teachable moments to explain that parents make mistakes and may have negative habits that they want to protect their children from.

Summary
We all have moments when we need to unwind, celebrate; the families in the restaurant were no exception. However, as parents, we are constantly under our children’s spotlight; and who better for them to look at as role models, than ourselves? Being ‘tipsy’ or drunk around children sets negative examples and harms the quality of the parent-child relationship. It only takes a drink or two for your words, actions, and judgment to be impaired. Children may laugh, but your intoxication sends them a message of insecurity and unpredictability. Children who witness their parents drunk are more likely to suffer from psychological maladjustment, family discord, and substance-abuse problems. If you are going to drink in front of your children, remember these key rules; if you find that drinking has led to family problems, please seek help.

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Kimberly S. Williams, Psy.D. About Kimberly S. Williams, Psy.D.

Dr. Kimberly Williams is a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adults with psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and disruptive behaviors, as well as learning disorders, developmental delays, executive functioning issues and social deficits. When Dr. Williams isn't in her Great Neck and Brooklyn, NY offices helping kids get ahead in their academic and social development, she is consulting and providing workshops and training in issues related to Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Special Education and Parent Advocacy. Visit her site at Dr. Kimberly Williams.