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Alcohol, Parenting and the Pandemic

October 25, 2020 | by Tzachi Rosman, Psy.D.

Alcohol consumption is up. Of particular concern is the impact on children.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that alcohol can be a savior. At least when used as a disinfectant. For those whose first thoughts were pertaining to alcohol’s ability to assist with management of anxiety, stress, family issues, boredom, etc., please read on.

A recently released RAND Corporation study published in JAMA Network Open (9/29/20), reported that current alcohol consumption in the United States has increased by 14% as compared to this time last year. Amongst adults aged 30-59 the increase was 19%. Of particular note, were the findings on a questionnaire assessing the adverse consequences related to alcohol reported during this time period. Men reported a 27% increase in alcohol-associated problems and women reported a 39% increase.

These numbers, in and of themselves, are highly concerning. Given the addictive nature of alcohol, the impact of significant increase in both intake and resulting problems is, unfortunately, likely to reverberate even once the pandemic is over.

Of particular concern is the impact of the above on children. Given the fact that many parents and children are spending substantially more time together due to the pandemic, coupled with the increase in alcohol-related memes on social media and mentions on TV, there is little doubt that children’s views of, and relationship with, alcohol will be shaped by their exposure during this time period.

Parental Modeling

Being a parent is different than parenting. Being a parent is a noun. Parenting is a verb. There are scores of books on parenting, but very few on being a parent. This is because when faced with a problem (such as “I have this new human being and I don’t know what to do with it” or “I have this adolescent crazy person and I don’t know what to do with him/her) most people look for solutions (parenting books).

Significantly, the role of a parent’s way of being (their personality, way of thinking, approach to life, behaviors) likely has greater impact on a child than any one parenting approach. Parents, whether they like it or not, serve as models to their children in all areas of life. A parent's relationship with alcohol is no different. It serves as an example to their children of the role alcohol plays in life.

Modeling Alcohol as Safe

How we act when engaging in an activity is generally commensurate with the degree of risk involved with that activity. Regardless of whether we explicitly talk about the riskiness of the activity, how we address that risk imparts information to our children. Driving in a car, for example. Riding in a car has a degree of danger. Our wearing of a seatbelt represents our acknowledgement of this risk and our efforts to take precautions to mitigate the danger.

Alcohol is potentially dangerous. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.

  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.

  • Weakening of the immune system, increasing the chances of getting sick.

  • Learning and memory problems, including poor school performance and dementia.

  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

  • Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment.

  • Alcohol use disorders, or alcohol dependence.

Excessive drinking includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.” Binge drinking, is defined as consuming 4 and 5 drinks during a single occasion for women and men, respectively. Heavy drinking is defined as consuming 8 and 15 drinks per week for women and men, respectively.

It is advised that women have no more than 1 drink of alcohol per day and men no more than 2 drinks daily.

The following graphic explains what is considered a “drink:”

Given the potential risks involved with alcohol consumption, it would be sensible to take action to mitigate risks. Flippant imbibing of alcoholic beverages, hanging out in a setting with a smorgasbord of alcohol, or the eating colorful alcohol-infused popsicles, even when not done in excess, provides the inaccurate representation that alcohol is safe. Such a message is likely to make children less apprehensive about alcohol, increasing the chance that they might develop an unhealthy relationship with the substance moving forward.

Modeling Alcohol as a Coping Skill

Emotions are a part of the human experience. A given emotion is not good or bad, although there are certainly ones that an individual may prefer or wish to avoid. While emotions themselves are neither healthy or unhealthy, there are certainly helpful and unhelpful ways of managing the variety of one’s emotional experiences. Healthy coping involves the engagement in behaviors that further the individual’s life goals and overall wellness. Doing so is an instrumental part of successful living.

How does one learn such skills? The most natural way is through exposure as a child. Watching a parent de-stress by going for a walk, talk about what’s going on, engage in a positive hobby, meditate, attend therapy or take prescribed medications, provides a natural education about healthy ways of coping. One can also intentionally learn helpful coping skills by reading books or articles, attending workshops, or watching videos.

Unhealthy ways of coping, can also be learned. If a parent drinks to calm their anxiety or fear, to manage their discomfort with a given situation, or to decrease their anger, this illustrates to that alcohol is a good coping skill to use when in emotional distress. While alcohol can have calming effects, one would be hard-pressed to argue that drinking furthers the individual’s overall wellness. This is because once the effects of alcohol wear off, the same anxieties, fears and concerns still remain-often with increased severity. Also, given the potential ill-effects of alcohol consumption, using it as a way to cope can result in more harm than good.

It’s All About the Relationship

Life is full of relationships. We have relationships with people, jobs, religion, God, food, society, sports, and anything with which we come into contact. Modeling the dynamics of a healthy relationship increases the chances that our children will be able to develop healthy relationship. Prioritizing, through speech and action, the relationships that matter most serves to illustrate to children the importance of those connections.

Drinking, even not to excess, despite a spouse’s disapproval is indicative of your prioritizing alcohol to your spouse. Attendance at a religious event specifically because of the alcohol being served illustrates that your relationship with alcohol is primary to your relationship with God/religion. Interestingly, spending time drinking with friends rather than hanging out with one’s family, even in cases when one wouldn’t otherwise be engaging with family, may be construed (by family members) as prioritizing alcohol over family.

During the pandemic, many people are unable to spend time with those that they love. Relationships may be strained or feel void of substance. While this may create a whole slew of uncomfortable emotions, it is ill-advised to substitute those missing connections with an enhanced relationship with alcohol.

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