Parents and drinking alcohol while in isolation: Your children will be watching and learning so be a good role model

Last weekend I did my first Instagram Live - a 20 minute live feed to my 28,000 Instagram followers. It was an interesting experience, quite nerve-wracking actually, and to make sure I had something to say to whoever was out there listening I asked anyone who had a question to send them through to me via Direct Message (DM). I was flooded with questions, some involving how and why I got into the alcohol and other drug field, others around how I was coping with 'isolation' and what I was doing with my time, as well as those that dealt with specific drugs and their effects. There were also a number that expressed concern about friends who they believed were drinking (or using other drugs, particularly cannabis) on their own while at home in isolation, asking what they could do to make sure they were safe. There were two DMs that I thought I would share with you that highlighted an issue that almost every Australian parent should be aware of and they are as follows: 

"I'm worried about my parents drinking. Since we've been locked at home I have noticed how much both of them drink, even during the day. My Mum is drinking about a bottle of wine to herself everyday. Should I say something to them and what should I say?"

"I want to remain anonymous but I want to know what I can do about my parents' drinking. Both of them are home with us kids each day and I can't believe how much they drink. I've gone online and it says that drinking during the day is not a good thing and both of them are doing that. I'd never seen my Mum drunk before last weekend but she must have drunk at least two bottles of wine and was slurring her words and it scared my little sister. My older brother said that it is fine and I shouldn't be worried but they're drinking a lot."

Now this piece has to be written carefully, we are going through crazy times and I have no desire to make any parent feel guilty about their alcohol consumption. The current restrictions have forced us all to give up so much, if drinking is your thing then I'm certainly not saying you should stop. That said, parents need to be aware that their children, no matter what their age, are constantly watching you and learning from your behaviour and actions. The impact of isolation, as well as the other restrictions that have been put into place in most parts of the world will be the subject of research papers for decades to come, remember we are in completely uncharted territory here. When it comes to parental role modelling, however, it is safe to say that your drinking during this isolation period will undoubtedly have an impact on your child's attitude and values around alcohol in the future.

If a parent is a drinker their children are likely to be aware of the fact. They may see their parents drink with a meal or at a family gathering, sit down after dinner and watch the TV with a glass of wine or beer, or simply open a bottle when a few friends come over on the weekend to catch-up. Alcohol is a part of our culture and drinking is the norm for most adult Australians. There are certainly some parents who prefer to restrict their alcohol consumption when their children are around, e.g., they try to wait until their child has gone to bed to pour themselves a beer or a glass of red, but in my experience they are certainly in the minority. The reality is that for most young people alcohol has been a part of their family life since they can remember, so what's the problem with what is currently happening?

There are three issues that I believe that need to be considered:

  • firstly, your child is far more likely to see your drinking behaviour than ever before - parents who consume alcohol were previously likely to drink in a number of settings, not just at home, e.g., drinks after work on a Friday afternoon, social gatherings at friends' homes. We are now all being asked to 'stay at home'. The reality is, if you drink your children are likely to see you doing it - if you are drinking responsibly then they are going to pick-up some healthy attitudes and values but if you 'slip-up' there's no hiding it
  • socializing has changed, including the role alcohol plays in that socializing - we know that most Australian adults choose to drink to socialize, often with a meal, e.g., they go out for dinner at a restaurant with friends. We are now being asked to limit our face-to-face social contact and sitting down at a dinner party with a group of friends sharing a couple of bottles of wine is now no longer an option. Of course there are many people who are finding ways of maintaining social ties with online activities such as 'virtual dinner parties' and that is great but, once again, this is now all being watched by your children
  • finally, some parents are now drinking to cope or deal with the stress and or boredom associated with isolation - available evidence shows us that this type of alcohol consumption  is not healthy and is more likely to lead to problem drinking but it's totally understandable in today's crazy world. In the past I've talked about trying to avoid flopping down in front of the TV on a Friday night after a big week and saying "I need a glass of wine", the one thing that almost all parents want is that if their child is going to drink alcohol, that they do it for the 'right' reasons. Drinking to 'cope' or de-stress is dangerous and no parent wants their behaviour during this period of isolation to lead to their child having alcohol problems in the future 

Alcohol is a part of many adult Australians' lives and no-one is suggesting that Mums and Dads who enjoy a drink occasionally are bad parents and should stop enjoying themselves, but as we navigate through this world of social isolation that we are now living in, it is important for parents to take a good, hard look at their current drinking behaviour and consider what their children may be picking up from watching them at extremely close quarters on a day-to-day basis. As confronting as this can be, this self-examination is important as, in doing so, it is possible that you may identify that your drinking could be indeed be problematic (at least in your child's eyes) and at the very least be causing them some degree of distress (as in the two messages above).

As the two teens' messages make clear, during this lockdown period they had both become aware of how much their parents are drinking and they were worried about what they were seeing and didn't know what to do about their concerns. For me there were two warning signs - firstly, both teens talked about counting 'bottles' and then there was the issue of observing a parent drunk for the first time. I have no idea whether or not either of these teens' parents actually do have a 'drinking problem' or not and, to be honest, it doesn't really matter. Their drinking was causing their child enough distress that it led them to reach out to someone for assistance - that's a problem in itself and should not be ignored.

So I've thrown a whole pile of stuff into the mix, is there any real easy answer here? No-one really knows when we will return to our 'normal' lives and the only real certainty is that this isolation period is going to continue for some time yet. If you drink alcohol, your children are going to continue to be watching and learning from you and your partner, so start talking about it. My advice is to follow a simple three-point plan which is as follows:

  • sit down with your partner and talk about your current drinking behaviour - what messages around alcohol are your children picking-up by watching you while you are in isolation? Are you now drinking during the day? Has your child recently commented about your drinking? Are you spending more on alcohol than you usually do? Are you having any alcohol-free days? This is not about making yourself feel guilty for enjoying a drink but it is vital that you have an honest discussion about the role alcohol is currently playing in your day-to-day life. If you can go to the garbage bin any day of the week and see a collection of empty bottles sitting there, remember your child can see that too ...
  • talk about your drinking with your children and give them the opportunity to ask any questions they may have about the use of alcohol in the house - once you've established what is currently happening and what they may be observing, find the right time to discuss the role alcohol plays in your life and the rules you follow when you and your partner drink. I cannot emphasize the importance of highlighting the rules you have established around alcohol, e.g., the number of alcohol-free days you have in a week; the limit you have on how much you drink in a day. Ensure you take the time to discuss the use of alcohol during isolation. Ask them what rules do they think they will have when they get older if they choose to drink. What rules do they think would be important? This is a great time to clarify your expectations around their behaviour in this area, making it clear that there is a big difference between 'child behaviour' and 'adult behaviour'. Nevertheless, they also need to be told that if your 'adult behaviour' in this area causes them any concerns or worries they can come to you anytime if the need should arise
  • don't try to cover everything in one talk and don't push it if they don't want to have the conversation. This may take a couple of chats (possibly even grunts from their end!) over a period of time and it could take a while to find out what they're thinking about the issue and if they have concerns. Most importantly, make sure you find the right time - they'll make it very clear if they're not interested. That doesn't mean you forget about it, you'll just have to wait until the time is right and they're a little more receptive

There are no easy answers here and, as already said, we're in completely uncharted territory. As with any teen issue, however, the most important thing to do is to maintain a positive relationship with your child and keep talking. Communication is the key here. The one thing that all of us have at the moment is time - make sure you take the time to deal with this issue. No-one is saying you shouldn't be drinking alcohol - you're an adult, you can do what you want. But if you do drink, take the time to talk about it with your child - it's an important discussion and one that should take place as soon as possible.

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