Binge drinking: When dads get drunk on the weekends, the kids are more likely to drop out of school
Parents' alcohol use seems to affect the children even when the adults have no substance abuse disorder, according to a new Norwegian study.
A lot of research has shown that alcohol abuse in parents is associated with many different problems in children, such as increased risk of mental illness and poorer school results.
But what if the parents don’t have an addiction disorder, but just enjoy binge drinking once a week? Is that a problem?
Norwegian researchers have conducted several studies to investigate that question. The latest study, recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, looks at the link between parents' drinking patterns and children's risk of dropping out of high school.
The results showed a surprisingly clear association.
“We thought we would find an association, but didn’t expect it would be so strong,” says Jasmina Burdzovic Andreas, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
Burdzovic Andreas and her colleagues used data from the HUNT survey for the study. This is a long-term survey of the population in Norway’s Trøndelag county. Thousands of participants have been involved for many years, answering questionnaires about lifestyle and health on a regular basis.
As time goes on, researchers can compare these responses with other information about the participants' health and lives.
In this study, the researchers looked at data from over 2500 families. The focus was on possible associations between the parents' binge drinking and whether their children completed upper secondary school.
The researchers were particularly interested in this topic because previous studies had suggested that frequent binges seemed to have an impact, and because dropping out of school is associated with major negative consequences for both physical and mental health.
Drunken dad created double risk
The analyses showed that there was a strong association between the fathers' drinking patterns and the risk that their children would not complete upper secondary school.
When fathers drank five or more units on the same occasion, once a week or more, their children had twice the odds of dropping out of school compared to other young people.
This association applied regardless of the children's gender, mental health, learning difficulties or their own alcohol consumption. It also applied regardless of the parents' level of education.
The researchers found no such association with binge drinking by the mothers, but very few mothers in the survey had this drinking pattern.
More than half of the fathers drank five units or more at least once a month, while most of the mothers never did. Thus, it was also difficult to get reliable results here.
“We can’t say that the mothers' drinking pattern was a risk factor, but we also can’t rule out that it’s important,” says Burdzovic Andreas.
This is an observational study, which in principle cannot say anything about cause and effect. So it cannot confirm that it was the fathers' drinking that led to problems with school.
In theory, we could imagine that the association went the other way. We might, for example, wonder whether the children's problems at school might lead their fathers to seek comfort in the bottle.
Or an underlying cause could be affecting both schooling and drinking patterns. Here, for example, it is conceivable that certain genes shared by the father and child create an increased risk of both drunkenness and problems at school.
Burdzovic Andreas nevertheless believes that there are reasons to believe that the fathers' drinking patterns actually affect the children's schooling.
Likely that drinking affects schooling
“We looked at the fathers' drinking patterns before and during the children's time in upper secondary school, before the age that they would have completed this education,” the researcher says.
The findings led the researchers to believe that the drinking pattern most likely affected schooling, and not the other way around.
Another issue is that the association held regardless of learning difficulties and problems in the children or the fathers’ level of education.
If, for example, the same genes caused both drinking and school problems, we might think that the fathers also had less education, or that this association was especially true for children with learning difficulties.
“But the father's drinking pattern remains even after we take into account all these factors,” says Burdzovic Andreas.
Believes it’s a good study
Ove Heradstveit is a researcher at NORCE, the Norwegian Research Centre and the Alcohol & Drug Research Western Norway (KORFOR). He has previously done research on mental health issues and substance abuse problems in young people, but was not involved in the study of binge drinking and dropping out of school.
Heradstveit believes the study has a number of strengths, for example that it uses data from so many participants, and that it links data from a population survey with the education database.
“Studies like these are quite rare internationally and are considered to provide a very good starting point for examining the associations researchers are working on,” he says.
Heradstveit believes the fact that the researchers took into account a number of other factors, like the fathers’ education and the children’s own alcohol habits, also adds to the reliability of the findings.
“I think it’s a good study, and the strong association between the fathers’ weekly drunkenness and the youths’ high school dropout rate is especially interesting,” he says.
“The study provides a basis for paying special attention to following up young people who live in stressful family situations with a view to completing their upper secondary education.”
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Slight change in drinking habits could have big effect
Burdzovic Andreas also believes that the results can have real significance in practice.
“Dad's drinking pattern is a modifiable risk factor,” she says.
In other words, if we found that genetics or fixed personality traits were associated with the risk of dropping out of school, it wouldn’t be so easy to do something about it. But drinking habits are actually possible to change.
“The adults don’t have to stop drinking alcohol, but they can try to drink a little less or a little less often. Drinking a lot once a month, for example, is not associated with a particularly increased risk for children's education.”
The same finding holds true if you drink more often, but not as much each time.
“A slight change in drinking habits could have a big effect,” says Burdzovic Andreas.
What doesn’t help, however, is to continue with weekly binge drinking that you just try to hide better from the kids.
Not about seeing Dad drunk
Researchers don’t yet know exactly what mechanisms might cause fathers' drinking patterns to influence their children's risk of dropping out of school.
Maybe the finding has to do with the fathers having less capacity to help and support the children.
It’s unlikely that the effect is related to seeing the father drunk, says Burdzovic Andreas.
The children in the HUNT survey had been asked if they ever noticed that their parents were drunk. But the children who noticed that their fathers drank a lot did not have a greater risk of dropping out of school than the ones who did not experience their father drunk.
“Figuring out which mechanisms are in play and lead to parents' drinking being associated with an increased risk of young people dropping out of school, sounds like a good issue that could perhaps be investigated in a future study,” Heradstveit says.
Jasmina Burdzovic Andreas et.al.: Parental binge drinking and offspring’s high school non-completion: A prospective HUNT survey and educational registry study. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2022.
Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no