28/05/20 – Dr Aric Sigman writes about the effects of parents’ drinking on children

This is an edited version of Dr Aric Sigman’s response to an article in the British Medical Journal.


In their article ‘Covid-19 and alcohol—a dangerous cocktail’, professors Finlay and Gilmore rightly draw attention to two vulnerable groups of drinkers during the Covid-19 lockdown.[01] In addition, and of central importance, is that whether parents drink more or less during Covid-19 lockdown, their children are far more likely to see them drink simply because they are all at home, off school and off work, for an extensive period of time. This is happening at a time where there is substantial evidence of the intergenerational transmission of alcohol habits and alcohol misuse through parental role modelling.

Alcohol expectancies refer to children’s beliefs regarding positive or negative effects of alcohol and are predictors of their drinking behaviours. Research involving young adults has established that positive alcohol expectancies are associated with greater alcohol use as well as concurrent and future hazardous alcohol use.[02] With regard to lock down, it is important to point out that the association between parental drinking behaviour and children’s alcohol expectancies develops within a short period of time.[03]

Exposure to parental drinking has been associated with pre-teens’ lifetime alcohol use.[04] Recent prospective studies, adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and family factors, find that hazardous parental drinking predicts mid-adolescent hazardous drinking.[05] Parental alcohol use during adolescence has recently been found to be directly related to adolescents’ heavy drinking.[06] And looking further ahead, there is further evidence of a direct pathway from parental alcohol use to alcohol use in young adulthood. Children whose parents misuse alcohol have increased risks of alcohol misuse in adulthood. Given the current concern over children’s mental health, there are new concerns that the research focus on children of parents with alcohol use disorders has eclipsed the potentially wider-reaching effects of subclinical parental drinking on the development of depression and anxiety in children.[07]

While interest in pathways to future drinking continues to focus on social influences and cultural norms including social media, factors considered to exist outside the home, there has been an elephant firmly ensconced in the room.[08] Many studies of adolescent drinking have failed to include parental drinking even as a confounding variable in the analyses, let alone as a major explanatory factor.[09] It’s time that Britain asked itself why such conspicuousness by absence? For if we fail to answer this, we will fulfil Finlay and Gilmore’s prophecy of ‘the toll of increased alcohol harm for a generation’.[01]

As a PSHE health education lecturer to children and parents, it’s become clear to me that parents feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that their alcohol consumption may influence their children’s alcohol consumption, both now and for decades to come. Interestingly, they are quite willing to accept that their example and role modelling in other health behaviours may well have long term influences on their children, but for them alcohol seems to merit an entirely different consideration.

Many parents believe that it is important to drink naturally in front of their children but to drink responsibly. And despite the fact that the World Health Organisation, concurring with many others, has stated ‘delaying the age at which young people take their first drink lowers their risk of becoming problem drinkers later in life’, many continue to revere what they believe is the French approach to introducing their children to responsible drinking.[10; 11] Their rationale is that to prevent alcohol problems, it is necessary to provide modest amounts of alcohol during early adolescence and even late childhood so that children “get used” to handling it, because it is a social learning process. However, when I offer to protect their children from cocaine addiction by giving them lessons in sensible snorting, they laugh. I’ve lived in France and have also lectured at French schools in the UK and in France and it may surprise many Britons that many French parents and doctors have developed great reservations regarding the wisdom of their former approach to child drinking and the subsequent very high levels of alcohol-related mortality and liver disease.[12]

Over the past three decades, I’ve travelled abroad extensively, often volunteer teaching, to observe child health and development in more obscure cultures, including North Korea, Bolivia, Turkmenistan, Burkina Faso, Bhutan and many others. Although not an empirical evaluation, these observations have provided an oblique second opinion, a reality check on our assumptions about the norms and influences in our culture. One recurring theme is that, generally, in societies where parents and culture disapprove of children drinking, children are less likely to drink, and in cultures that frown upon drunkenness, children are less likely to get drunk.

Returning to Britain during lockdown, the front cover of The Times magazine features the headline ‘Binge drinking… darling, how many units?’ and is followed on the article inside with the title “Well, you don’t have to be sober to work from home’. A famous journalist couple with children write entertainingly about the ups and downs of heavy drinking at home during lockdown.[13] These sentiments occur in a culture where it is often easier to bring one’s child to the local pub than to the local health club and where the legal drinking age at home remains at five years of age, where alcohol charities and lobby groups have preferred to focus on improving resources and treatments for alcohol use disorders but noticeably refrained from drawing attention to prevention beginning in childhood and in particular the role of parents in that prevention.  As an American, I know many of my fellow countrymen prefer not to consider the role of gun ownership in causing significant health problems – shooting fatalities –  and I sense some analogy when it comes to Britain standing back from the bottle and considering children, parental drinking and next generation alcohol problems.

Covid-19 and alcohol may indeed prove to be a dangerous cocktail in more ways than we realise if monkey see, monkey do.


01. Finlay I, Gilmore I. Covid-19 and alcohol—a dangerous cocktail BMJ 2020; 369 :m1987

02. Grazioli VS, Lewis MA, Garberson LA, Fossos-Wong N, Lee CM, Larimer ME. Alcohol expectancies and alcohol outcomes: Effects of the use of protective behavioral strategies. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2015 May;76(3):452-8.

03. Smit K, Voogt C, Otten R, Kleinjan M, Kuntsche E. Alcohol expectancies change in early to middle adolescence as a function of the exposure to parental alcohol use. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2020 Mar 25:107938.

04. Smit K, Otten R, Voogt C, Kleinjan M, Engels R, Kuntsche E. Exposure to drinking mediates the association between parental alcohol use and preteen alcohol use. Addict Behav. 2018 Dec 1;87:244-50.

05. Sharmin S, Kypri K, Wadolowski M,  et al. Parent hazardous drinking and their children’s alcohol use in early and mid-adolescence: prospective cohort study. Eur J Public Health. 2019 Aug 1;29(4):736-40.

06. Parra GR, Patwardhan I, Mason WA, et al. Parental Alcohol Use and the Alcohol Misuse of their Offspring in a Finnish Birth Cohort: Investigation of Developmental Timing. J Youth Adolesc. 2020 May 6.

07. Lund IO, Skurtveit S, Handal M, et al. BMC Public Health. Association of Constellations of Parental Risk With Children’s Subsequent Anxiety and Depression: Findings From a HUNT Survey and Health Registry Study. JAMA Pediatr. 2019 Mar 1;173(3):251-9.

08. MacArthur GJ, Hickman M, Campbell R. Qualitative exploration of the intersection between social in uences and cultural norms in relation to the development of alcohol use behaviour during adolescence. BMJ Open 2020;10:e030556. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2019-030556

09. Donovan JE. Commentary on Rossow et al.(2015): Early Days Yet in the Cycle from Peer to Parent Drinking as Influences on Adolescent Alcohol Involvement. Addiction (Abingdon, England). 2016 Feb;111(2):218.

10. World Health Organisation. Adolescents drink less, although levels of alcohol consumption are still dangerously high [press release]. (2018 September 26) [cited 2020 May 24]. Available from:

http://www.euro.who.int/en/media-centre/sections/press-releases/2018/adolescents-drink-less,-although-levels-of-alcohol-consumption-are-still-dangerously-high

11. Clare PJ, Dobbins T, Bruno R, et al. The overall effect of parental supply of alcohol across adolescence on alcohol‐related harms in early adulthood—a prospective cohort study. Addiction. 2020 Feb 7.

12. Costa M, Barré T, Coste M, et al. Screening and care for alcohol use disorder in France: expectations, barriers and levers using a mixed-methods approach. BMC Public Health. 2020 Dec;20(1):1-5.

13. Coren E, Coren G. Binge-drinking, us? Well you don’t have to be sober to work from home. The Times Magazine. 2020 May 9:58-59.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/staying-in-with-the-corens-binge-drinking-us-75c7t9z0d

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