Parenting during a pandemic - rules regarding alcohol at home

Drinkaware, the national charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol misuse and shift expectancies regarding underage drinking has published new findings from a qualitative study with parents, the study focusing on the real-life experiences of parents during the pandemic and the impact the pandemic had on their attitudes and behaviours towards alcohol.

The study took place at the start of 2022, reflecting back on the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns. Focus group discussions were conducted with parents by Behaviour & Attitudes’ Dr Maggie Matthews, on behalf of Drinkware.

Whilst unsurprisingly alcohol being used as a coping strategy was prevalent in the findings, the justification and self-recognition of increased drinking was also revealed. Parents’ subjective definition of ‘problem drinking’ and its influence on their personal ‘rules’ over official guidelines, was also in evidence. And this translated into the parents’ rules regarding their children’s exposure to alcohol. Parental concern regarding alcohol’s impact on their children’s mental health, was also noted in the study.

Key findings

Parents felt they were under a disproportionate amount of pressure with little or no support

“There was SO much pressure on parents, it was unfair on us, on the kids. I had 3 kids to home school, with a partner who was an essential worker so out of the house, plus my own job to keep down. I honestly don’t know how I did it” Parent, primary school

Alcohol became a distraction, with normal routines removed, parents had to create new routines, and many involved alcohol

There was so little else to do, so it just became this go to. I’d nothing to do in the evening but watch TV. There was no other way to give myself that lift” Parent, pre-school

Increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic was seen as normal

“We all saw the chaos at the bottle bank. Everyone was in the same boat. The sat nav in my car had that as the default as I barely went anywhere else” - Parent, pre-school

Parents hold a subjective understanding of ‘problem drinking’

“It’s a funny one, how do you know if you’re dependent. I think I could stop if I wanted to, but I don’t see a reason to” Parent, pre-school

Parents did not hide their drinking from their children, but they did have specific personal rules surrounding alcohol consumption in front of their children for example

Happy for children to see them drinking outside rather than inside, happy for children to see them drink wine, but not spirits.

This study follows on from the ‘Families, alcohol & Covid-19’ * research paper (Drinkaware 2021 ), which recommended that family households and parents in particular, merited further investigation. Understanding the attitudes and behaviours of parents towards alcohol, and how parents themselves see alcohol’s involvement in the lives of their children is fundamental to shifting expectations regarding underage drinking.

‘Parents, Covid and alcohol’ found that there were specific differences between the three different parent cohorts, pre-school, primary school, and teen. With parents of pre-schoolers feeling that their children would lack understanding and awareness of what is going in a household regarding alcohol, and that young children serve as a deterrent for consumption due to their care needs. Parents of primary school children also felt awareness would be low but become more concerned as a child reaches 9,10 and 11 years of age, while still feeling the child is too young for a conversation about alcohol. In contrast parents of teens were more concerned with normalising behaviours around alcohol and the mental wellbeing of their children but felt that they could have a conversation with them about alcohol.

The study revealed how parents engaged in self-regulation, out of necessity, as the pandemic progressed. Many of the participating parents named lockdown 1 (March – June 2020 ) as the worst period in terms of increased alcohol consumption, with the majority pulling back after realising that their drinking had reached levels that they were unhappy with. The level of awareness of the HSE low-risk weekly guidelines was low, as is the case with much of the adult population in Ireland (awareness level of 2-3%, 2021 Drinkaware Annual Barometer ). And parents reported preferring moderation techniques, for example, no drinking before X o’clock, or stop drinking when finished eating.

Crucial to Drinkaware’s work is an understanding of the actual lived experiences of Irish adults regarding their alcohol use. This exposes the on-the-ground issues that people are facing, and can be used to inform intervention and prevention opportunities which Drinkaware leverages in its ongoing awareness, education and behaviour change activities. Promoting and enabling individual and societal behaviour and attitudinal change is an important part of alcohol harm prevention and reduction, and can support and optimise environmental and policy measures with the same goal.


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