Even `non-problem' drinking by parents tied to mental health problems in kids

(Reuters Health) – Kids may be more likely to develop depression and anxiety when their parents are regular drinkers, even when neither parent drinks enough to be considered an alcoholic, a Norwegian study suggests.

Researchers studied 8,773 children from 6,696 two-parent families who participated in a health survey when the kids were 13 to 19 years old. Overall, 2,132 of the children, or about 24 percent, had depression or anxiety, or both.

Children were 52 percent more likely to have anxiety or depression when both parents regularly drank alcohol and when fathers themselves had symptoms of mental health issues than when parents didn’t drink or have any psychological problems, the study found.

The findings suggest that in some family settings, even normal levels of parental alcohol use might trigger children to develop anxiety and/or depression in adolescence and early adulthood, said lead study author Ingunn Olea Lund of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo.

“This is significant, as the level of alcohol consumption discussed in this study rarely appears to be problematic,” Lund said by email.

While the study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how parents’ drinking habits might directly impact kids’ mental health, it’s possible that parents just become less attentive to children’s needs when they drink, Lund said.

Also, changes in parents’ behavior when they drink might be scary or uncomfortable for children, even when parents don’t consume enough alcohol to be considered problem drinkers, Lund added.

Mental health problems and alcohol use disorder in parents have long been linked to psychological problems in children, Lund’s team notes in JAMA Pediatrics. But less clear is how parents’ alcohol use that is common but not excessive might influence their children’s mental health.

On average, mothers in the study drank on about 2.6 occasions monthly and fathers drank 3.6 times monthly. The women reported consuming almost three glasses of wine, beer or liquor in a typical two-week period, while the men reported consuming more than five glasses.

One limitation of the study is that it excluded single parent families as well as any families where one parent or teenager didn’t participate in the health surveys. This may mean results don’t reflect what would happen in many types of families and households that are common in modern society.

Researchers also relied on parents to accurately report how much they drank. As a result, some people may not have been correctly identified as problem drinkers.

However, drinking that doesn’t reach the level of alcoholism affects far more children and families than alcohol use disorders, said Linda Richter, of the Center on Addiction in New York City.

“We know that parenting practices, which have a very strong influence on a child’s well-being, are definitely affected by alcohol use and mental health problems and these effects can manifest in a number of ways,” Richter, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“They can be obvious, like abuse or neglect of the child, or more subtle like modeling unhealthy behaviors for the child or failing to identify and address early signs of risk for childhood anxiety or depression and addressing it accordingly,” Richter added. “Alcohol use and mental health problems in adults and children often go hand in hand, as people tend to ‘self-medicate’ their anxiety or depression with alcohol or other addictive substances, especially if they do not have adequate access to professional help due to limited financial resources or education.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/2TC4TQ2 JAMA Pediatrics, online January 7, 2019.

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