Drinking and Parenting: Where Is the Line?

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Should you drink and parent? At first glance, it seems the obvious response would be a resounding “no!” But as we let the question sink in, perhaps the answer is a bit less obvious. There is a world of difference between a parent that engages in occasional social drinking and one who has alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

Clearly, a parent who is addicted to alcohol or any substance is going to create an unsafe environment for their child, not to mention long-term emotional consequences. But what about the parents who drink socially or moderately? Are they having an impact on their children as well?

This article will explore those questions, the reasons some parents drink, whether it helps or hurts their parenting, and how the child’s development is affected. 

Drinking To Reduce Stress

mother drinking wine and frowning next to her son
Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels

Some parents claim not to have a drinking problem, but will argue that a drink now and then can help manage the stress or monotony that sometimes accompanies parenting small children. 

In one Esquire article, a dad states, “Intellectually, I know this is ‘bad parenting.’ In actuality, drinking while dadding makes me much better at child-rearing. With a slight buzz, the relentless crises don’t seem so bad. Booze eliminates the inherent boredom of fatherhood…”1 In his view, alcohol better prepares him for his parental role, and makes it easier to meet his children where they are.   

Mommy wine culture” is another current example of parents feeling the need to take the edge off. Moms everywhere are gathering for hybrid playdate/happy hours, where they sip varying amounts of alcohol and commiserate about the relentless demands of parenting young kids. Some of these moms simply crave social interaction and adult company, while others are self-medicating feelings of anxiety, isolation, and even depression. Needless to say, the latter can lead to trouble down the road.

How Parental Drinking Impacts Kids

According to SAMHSA, about one in 10 children live with a parent with alcohol use disorder (AUD),2 and about one in five adults lived with a relative who abused alcohol when they were growing up.3 Parents with AUD may struggle to provide a safe, loving environment for their children, which can contribute to long-term emotional and behavioral consequences.

Parental drinking impacts kids in multiple ways. For younger children, there are issues of safety and attention. There are concerns about parents driving while impaired, or falling asleep and leaving little ones unsupervised. For older children and adolescents attention is still an issue, but there is also the flawed role-modeling and glorification of alcohol to consider. Lastly, the parent’s mood changes can have a significant impact on children of all ages. 

An article in Alcohol Health and Research World outlines the importance of the parental role during adolescence, when there are so many biological, psychological, and social changes. By drinking heavily, parents model ineffective coping strategies and other inappropriate behaviors. This puts kids at risk for alcohol and other drug use, as well as psychological problems.4 

In addition, problem drinking may impair parenting skills essential to serve, nurture, and guide children. It can lead to inconsistency or unpredictability in parenting behaviors. This inconsistency in parenting may damage a child’s sense of order, control, and stability within the family, reducing feelings of self-esteem and self-competence. 

To compensate for the lack of affection and support, adolescents may, unfortunately, seek friends who drink or use drugs.

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What Messages Do Parents Send By Drinking?

Parents are the most influential role models in their child’s life. Their actions, not just their words, teach the child how to relate to others, how to deal with difficult emotions, and how to manage daily living in general. 

In her article “Parenting Without Alcohol” Courtney Harris reflects on the subconscious lessons she was imparting to her kids, motivating her to quit. In her view, her drinking was “telling them” to reach for something outside of themselves for relaxation and comfort—and that emotions such as sadness and boredom could be reduced by drinking alcohol.5 

How Much Do Children Notice?

mother and father standing on bridge with wine glasses and child
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels

The truth is, even non-dependent drinking can have an effect on children. According to a 2017 UK study, “Parents can, and often do, act as good role models for their children regarding alcohol … What many parents may not realise is that children understand a great deal about the amount parents drink.” Being drunk in front of one’s children or telling stories that glamorize alcohol can easily undermine other good examples.

Children can tell the difference in levels of inebriation, and nearly one in five in the study reported being embarrassed by their parent’s drinking. Kids are attuned to even slight mood changes in their parents from as little as one glass.6

Why Parenting Can Be More Enjoyable Without the Booze

Without the numbing effects of alcohol or the painful effects of hangovers, you can be fully present for your children. They will notice and thrive from your undivided attention—from story-time, to dance recitals, sporting events, and driving lessons. Your child may not show it, but they need your clear-headed nurturing and stability every step of the way. 

As another Medium author notes, “When you numb the junk, you numb the joy.”7 The message here is that once you can rediscover trust in yourself instead of in booze, something remarkable happens for your children to witness. You set an example for a healthy way to engage in the joys and challenges of life.

The Takeaway on Drinking and Parenting

Parental drinking is a personal choice and can take on many forms. The important thing to remember is that heavy drinking and parenting is never acceptable. As much as you love your child, alcohol abuse will alter your ability to provide the nurturing and stability they need to develop into emotionally healthy adults. 

If you choose to use alcohol in moderation, your children are going to observe the role it plays in your life. They will notice if you are utilizing it as a coping mechanism, and they will easily detect any changes in your mood or behavior. For the health and well-being of your children, it is critical to drink responsibly and avoid glamorizing alcohol in any way.

If you’re struggling to find the right balance with alcohol amidst the rigors of parenting, there are new ways to get help. Ria Health offers medical and counseling support on your schedule, from a smartphone app. Learn more.

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Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who resides in upstate New York. She especially enjoys writing about health, wellness and living your best life.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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