Health Agenda

Mental Health

The real impact of drinking alcohol in front of children

Research tells us youngsters learn many of their behaviours from their parents. So what affect does drinking alcohol around our children have?

“My parents didn’t look like alcoholics,” says Natalie*. “Alcoholics on TV hid bottles of vodka in linen cupboards and turned up to events drunk, falling over and slurring their words. They were embarrassing. Neither of my parents did that. They both worked, had friends and spent time mowing the lawn and cooking Sunday lunch. They were normal. We were normal. Except some things weren’t.”

By watching us, children learn how to navigate their world – from their first steps and first words, to how to treat and speak to others.

Parents have a major influence on young minds and if we’re behaving badly, it may follow that our kids will too – or, at very least, be negatively impacted by what they see.

While alcohol is part of many social occasions in our lives, more and more Australians are now also drinking at home, an after-effect of COVID-related lockdowns that has continued.

Prompted by the increase in Australians drinking at home during COVID-19 lockdown periods in 2020, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s ‘You haven’t been drinking alone’ campaign highlights the concerning reality that our children are seeing us reach for alcohol at home more often.

So what impact is that having on them and what are the potential issues around drinking alcohol in front of our children?

Alcohol as a source of stress-relief

How many of us have uttered the words, “I need a drink!” at least once in the past 12 months? It’s a throwaway line that we might say while stuck in bad traffic, after a tricky conversation with a colleague or when trying to help a tired kid with their home schooling.

But those four little words can have a big impact.

By talking about our “need” for a drink, we’re sending the message that a drink can help us cope or recover from a bad day or situation.

Consider the difference if we instead said, “I need a good night’s sleep” or “I need a hug”. And don’t assume that children are too young to understand this concept.

“We don’t give children enough credit,” says Dr Vicky Phan, an Addiction Psychiatrist at Turning Point Eastern Services and a lecturer at Monash University. “They often understand more than we think they do.”

Alcohol, a glamorous part of life

With so much of our social lives and special occasions revolving around drinking in Australia, we’re in danger of glamourising alcohol.

While it may not be appealing to cut out all alcohol from weddings, parties and backyard BBQs, Dr Phan says there are healthy ways we can treat drinking on special occasions.

“If you’re drinking around your children, explain that it’s something that’s for special occasions and not something you’d do every day. Just have one drink and let them see you say no to a second. Letting them know that it’s okay to say no to alcohol is an important part of modelling good behaviour.”

Alcohol as an addiction

Although she rarely drinks now, Natalie admits to drinking alcohol from an early age, and says it felt normal after watching her parents alcohol use.

“I started getting drunk around the age of 14. Friends and I would share straight vodka we’d stolen from our parents’ drinks cabinets. More than once, I passed out or vomited, or both.”

While some research suggests that children with parents who have an alcohol-use disorder are at a higher risk of developing their own addiction issues, Dr Phan says that, thankfully, most don’t.

“We do know that the longer you delay your child’s exposure to – and [their own] drinking of – alcohol, the less likely they are to develop problems with alcohol.”

Dr Phan recommends not drinking in front of children, but says that if you do, to keep exposure to it to a minimum.

“If you want your child to have a good relationship with alcohol, it’s about positive modelling,” she says. “Don’t get drunk in front of them. Say no to alcohol, so they can see that’s okay. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t use alcohol as a way to cope with stress. And have a conversation with them about why it’s not a good idea to start drinking young as their brains are still developing.”

Natalie agrees, and says she is conscious to set an example of moderation and alcohol for her own children.

“I rarely drink in front of my children, and if I do, it’s only ever one or two. I regularly go weeks or months when I drink nothing.”

Getting help with alcohol

Reset drinking habits with the Daybreak app^, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.

The Daybreak app is fully subsidised by the Australian Department of Health, which means all Australians get free access.

HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support. For more information contact HCF’s Health and Wellbeing Team at wellbeing@hcf.com.au

Download the Daybreak app on the App Store or Google Play.

Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:  

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
June 2021

related articles

Growing up as a child of an alcoholic

One woman reveals what it was like growing up with alcoholic parents

Co-parenting with an alcoholic partner

Co-parenting with someone who has alcohol addiction is tough. Here's what you can do.

How to help an alcoholic partner

Protecting you own physical and emotional health is vital while supporting an alcoholic partner.

Alcohol and depression in men

The growing link between men, alcohol and mental health is revealing some shocking effects.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

This communication contains information which is copyright to The Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia Limited (HCF). It should not be copied, disclosed or distributed without the authority of HCF. Except as required by law, HCF does not represent, warrant and/or guarantee that this communication is free from errors, virus, interception or interference. All reasonable efforts have been taken to ensure the accuracy of material contained on this website. It’s not intended that this website be comprehensive or render advice. HCF members should rely on authoritative advice they seek from qualified practitioners in the health and medical fields as the information provided on this website is general information only and may not be suitable to individual circumstances or health needs. Please check with your health professional before making any dietary, medical or other health decisions as a result of reading this website.

*Name has been changed.

^You should make your own enquiries to determine whether this service is suitable for you. If you decide to use this service, it'll be on the basis that HCF won't be responsible, and you won't hold HCF responsible, for any liability that may arise from that use.