Tippling point: When parents drink too much at home

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Communion season is almost here and it will see many families celebrate with alcohol. However, parents need to be aware that drinking too much in front of their children can have long-term consequences, writes Áilín Quinlan.

When we think of Communion season, we think of happy little girls in frilly white dresses and boys in their Sunday best - we don’t associate this religious celebration with sozzled parents.

But children’s entertainer, *Jessie, does. The alcohol consumption by parents and relatives at big family celebrations like these can be so extreme, says the popular performer, that at times she’s become stressed and even fearful.

“You’re battling drunk parents, the noise level and children on sugar highs; you’re there trying to perform in the corner. There would be a lot of drink at First Communions,” she says. 

“Some get messy because the adults get so drunk and people can get aggressive. Most communions don’t happen at the home now, they take place in the pub or at a hotel.

I went to one last year that was held in the pub. All the adults were drunk and I just got the head down and got through it.

Though most adults consume alcohol sensibly at family gatherings, the way parents drink in front of children can give out subtle, but very important messages about alcohol and its consumption. It's a message which can have long-term effects on the way children view it, warns Austin Prior, an addiction counsellor at Dublin’s Rutland Centre.

“A strong message is that in good times you celebrate with alcohol and in bad times you console yourself with it; that if you’re stressed you have a drink," he says,  warning that children are affected by these “subtle, subliminal messages.” 

On top of that, Prior says, tippling can result in unreliability on behalf of parents. 

“Parents may be too hungover to take the kids to football on a Saturday morning and plans get changed because someone is feeling under the weather.” 

It’s not only about extremely heavy drinking. Moderate alcohol misuse, “where the child is bearing the brunt of it but where it’s not bad enough for anyone to intervene,” is very common, he says.

“There’s still a lack of nurturing, a lack of dependability or reliability and a situation where children are taking on responsibility too young and too early.

“If people are misusing alcohol they have to ask what the knock-on effects are on their children.” 

So if you drink, he emphasises, show your children how to use alcohol responsibly. 

“Responsible social drinking, where a parent has a glass of something at a family occasion can give children positive messages about the responsible use of alcohol.

“It’s about accepting that children will be influenced by the way you drink alcohol and about making a mature decision to show children that alcohol is something that can be enjoyed in a responsible manner where there are no negative consequences.” 

Eamon* grew up listening to his parents’ drunken rows and insults. Looking back, he says it affected his perception of the world, his self-confidence, his friendships, his sibling relationships and his romantic relationships.

“Both my parents drank every evening. They also smoked. The alcohol and the cigarette came before the kids’ needs or their own needs,” recalls the 40-year-old.

“My father would go out about 8pm to the pub and come back hours later. My mother would put us to bed and then start drinking, and when my dad came home there’d be a row.

“Words were said that kids should not hear and it would escalate.

“It was like being in a war. A shell could go off any time, so you couldn’t enjoy the peace. We all grew up walking on eggshells.” 

It was a given that nobody outside the family should ever suspect what went on, he says and although money was tight, the children struggled to maintain appearances.

“We were all excellent at school and sports. I turned into a people pleaser, but I’d be comparing myself to other kids whose parents could afford things and there was an element of resentment and also of shame about our home life; a feeling of not being good enough."

Later still it affected his ability to maintain romantic relationships.

"You didn’t know what a healthy relationship was because of how they treated each other; you might know it wasn’t right, but you still didn’t know what was right,” he says. 

Aged 30 Eamon joined Al-Anon, a renowned support group for the family and friends of problem drinkers. It was the best thing he ever did, he says and he still attends two meetings a week.

Yet despite the fact that it has been widely shown to be harmful to children, moderately heavy tippling by parents is still the norm in many Irish homes.

Figures show that in the space of just a generation - since the early 1960’s - our total consumption of alcohol has increased nearly threefold, from 4.9 litres per capita in 1960 to a peak of 14.3 litres

in 2001. On top of that, women today are drinking significantly than their mothers or grandmothers - the amount that Irish women drink is significantly higher than it was 30 years ago, according to data published in The Lancet last year as part of a global study. 

Irish women are near the top of the table worldwide for heavy drinking, ranking seventh. On average, Irish women drank 3.1 standard drinks per day in 2016, and while this was 13% lower than the Celtic tiger peak in 2005, it’s 35% higher than in 1995.

“There’s been a rise of about 34% in the number of women and men drinking since 1990,” says Eunan McKinney, head of advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland.

He believes the rise in alcohol consumption can be partly attributed to the fact that alcohol is not only very easily available - it’s also incredibly affordable.

In 1990 people tended to go to the pub, but today figures show that more than 65% of all alcohol is consumed at the home.

“You can buy spirits wine beer or cider very quickly because shops, corner shops, petrol stations, supermarkets all sell alcohol now.

“This was not the case before the market was liberalised in the 90s,” he says adding that this change essentially allowed the licensing of a lot more outlets to sell alcohol.

“In the 1990s people generally went to the pub and even then a lot of women didn‘t go to the pub.” 

Now, however, observes McKinney, you can buy a can of beer for as little as 60c, a bottle of vodka for €12 or €13 or a big bottle of cider for around €5. 

“The price of a standard of drink can be as low as 50 cent - it is exceptionally affordable - it’s cheaper than milk in some cases, and very available, so whether you’re buying petrol or milk or vegetables, alcohol is there. It’s a genie that’s come out of the bottle and won’t go back in. “ “That has had an impact in terms of what has become socially acceptable and the norm.

Another factor in the normalisation of drinking is what he calls a “fabricated” culture of sophistication around alcohol consumption.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, people in Ireland were not celebrating with Prosecco, for example, ” he says. 

This is a culture manufactured by the drinks industry - and that it directly impacts on women, who he says, are also now being encouraged to believe that they can drink the same as men.

This rise in female drinking has not happened, he emphasises, because one day “women all woke up and decided to drink more alcohol".

“It’s about the marketing skills that are being deployed, the culture around it and the affordability and availability.” 

McKinney points to a recent advertisement for alcohol which features three people, two men and a woman.

“The only person holding a pint was the woman- this reinforces the concept that the female should drink the same as a man.

“Yet the science tells us that women shouldn’t do this.” 

As part of this culture of female tippling, wine producers are also targeting the sponsorship of female-led dramas - Chilean winemaker Santa Rita, for example, Ireland’s bestselling wine, has sponsored several female-led dramas on RTÉ. Gin is also successfully being targeted at a female audience by a “pinkening” of the drink, says McKinney.

“The industry is targeting women,” he says, adding that by encouraging women to drink the same as men, the drinks sector is also tapping into a lucrative new market.

The consumption of alcohol among women is in the rise because they’re being targeted by the alcohol industry.

"People end up drinking too much and it impacts on the home in terms of accidents, disruption, and in the context of impacts on children.

“The core point is that children who are introduced to alcohol by parents will go on to drink more," says McKinney.

An almost inevitable by-product of regular alcohol consumption in the home is that it will be carried out, to some extent at least, in front of children - and that it will negatively affect them.

Alcohol abuse in the home can impact on the potential for alcohol consumption by children - a survey carried out by the UK’s Health and Social Care Information Centre, found that pupils aged 11-15 in England are more likely to drink if they live with other people who drink alcohol.

It also found that 86% of pupils who did not live with anyone who drank alcohol had never consumed alcohol themselves, compared with 40% of pupils who lived with three or more drinkers.

The charity has highlighted a strong connection between pupils' drinking behaviour and their parents' attitudes to their drinking - it found that 77% of pupils who had never consumed alcohol reported that their parents would not like them drinking, and that 84% of pupils who had drunk in the past week said their parents did not mind them drinking as long as they didn't drink too much.

And according to the UK Institute of Alcohol Studies, a large body of literature has found parental drinking to be significantly linked with harm to children. It has advised that parents consider the amount they drink around their children, as well as the way in which they talk about alcohol, and to avoid glamorising alcohol within the family.

The research suggests that negative impacts on children, as a result of their parents’ drinking, can begin even at low levels and increase as consumption does.

“Parents may be under the impression that stories of their own drunkenness or hangovers may put their children off drinking by highlighting problems, but these stories may have the opposite effect, encouraging and legitimising the idea of excessive drinking,” the Institute warns.  

GP and lifestyle medicine expert Mark Rowe believes one of the most worrying issues around the increase in home-based alcohol consumptions is its potential effect on children. 

“As a GP I’ve seen a lot of people over the years who are dealing with the fact that their childhood was very impacted on by alcohol - which is now causing problems for them in adulthood,” he says. 

*Not his real name

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