How much alcohol do you typically drink in a week? A month? A year? Did your answer take into account how much you drink on New Year’s Eve? On Christmas? During the Super Bowl or World Cup?
Special occasions such as holidays, weddings or major sporting events make up much of that difference. How much a person drinks at a special event can vary quite a bit, adding an extra four drinks per week for men and three drinks per week for women, and people usually don’t include these splurges in their tallies.
My research team studies alcohol use and its effects on parenting, with an ultimate goal to identify strategies that support positive parenting. Particularly in the festive holiday season – filled with gatherings where drinking is commonplace – understanding how special-occasion drinking affects how parents treat their children could help people change their routines in ways that make these occasions more enjoyable for everyone.
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Alcohol’s effects on social problems
It’s not news that alcohol is related to many social problems: violence, traffic crashes, child abuse and neglect. Alcohol can enable bad behavior during special occasions. Incidents of drunken driving are highest after New Year’s Eve, for instance.
Alcohol use by men on days of major sporting events is related to more violence toward their families. However, because this relationship has been primarily studied among men, we don’t know if it is the same for women. Women’s drinking has increased over the past several decades, making this an important topic to understand.
Drinking while parenting can cause lax supervision of children or more harsh parenting practices. In our recent study, my colleagues and I wanted to see if a parent’s alcohol use on two special occasions was related to the use of aggressive discipline – whether physical punishment like spanking, or psychological aggression like yelling and name-calling.
Drinking more on special days
In February 2021, we asked 307 parents to take three brief daily surveys for 14 days. We pushed a text message to parents’ phones at 10 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. that asked questions about whether they had used specific discipline strategies since the last survey.
On the seventh and 14th day, the survey included questions about whether parents drank alcohol during the past week. If they did, we asked them to tell us on which days, and during what time frames. We matched the days and times they drank with parenting behaviors they’d previously reported. Importantly, 93% of parents in our study were mothers.
A higher percentage of parents drank at some point on Valentine’s Day (23.7%) and Super Bowl Sunday (16.9%) than on non-special occasion days during the study (14.7%).
Drinking alcohol during the Super Bowl was related to a 2.5 times higher odds of using aggressive discipline. However, drinking on Valentine’s Day was related to lower odds of using aggressive discipline.
So special-event drinking did affect parenting behavior – but in different ways depending on the event.
When drinking while watching a fairly violent sport, such as football, parents could be “copycatting” aggressive behavior they see on the screen. Researchers have suggested this link for men’s behavior toward their families. With women now making up 46% of the Super Bowl audience, my colleagues and I suggest there might be a similar relationship for them. When children appear disruptive or are playing in the same room, dads and moms may be quicker to yell instead of redirecting the behavior without resorting to aggression.
Valentine’s Day is different. Although more parents reported drinking on Valentine’s Day than on Super Bowl Sunday, we didn’t see the same increase in aggressive parenting. Valentine’s Day celebrates romance and love. Its norms are markedly different from the Super Bowl, leading to a more relaxed parenting style. Drinking may be more likely to occur at a restaurant with a nice dinner that may or may not include children. For couples who leave their children at home, the holiday provides respite from parenting and focuses attention on other activities.
Celebrating while still parenting with care
Our results suggest parents may want to remember that drinking at special events like holiday parties or family gatherings may not only be different than their regular pattern of alcohol consumption, but also may influence how they interact with their children both during the event and even the next day.
What can moms and dads do to reduce harsh parenting during special occasions when they choose to drink?
- Parents can plan ahead and choose a “designated parent” who does not drink and takes the lead on supervising the children. This could be one or multiple people.
- Drinking nonalcoholic mocktails or light beers to reduce the alcohol content can bring drinking more in line with a regular day.
- Hiring a babysitter during the event, planning a playdate or bringing alternative activities to keep children engaged might lessen everyone’s stress.
- For an event like the Super Bowl, having activities supervised in another room, such as watching a child-friendly movie, might reduce problems.
Even special occasions as simple as a summer barbecue with friends or family could change how you parent, especially for those who drink infrequently. With so many adults around, it’s easy to assume another adult is watching the kids when no one actually is. Putting a plan in place around special events where parents will be drinking may reduce possible harm to your children.
Bridget Freisthler receives funding from National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.