Family Life


9 min Read

Alcohol and Parenting: Expert Advice On The New Health Guidelines

Two adults maybe parents drinking alcohol together, close-up of wine glasses as arm of one adult pours more wine. Cropped face of female-presenting person smiling in blue sweater.

The research is clear that many parents increased their alcohol consumption as the pandemic raged on: Homeschooling, job uncertainty, lockdowns and wondering if we were all going to die understandably contributed to a boom in alcohol and cannabis sales across Canada.

It was a collective response to a very stressful situation. But now, a Health Canada-funded report issued by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addictions (CCSA) says alcohol is a health risk due to evidence of its link to cancer. The report recommends no more than two drinks per week for adults—a significant reduction from up to 10 drinks per week for women and up to 15 drinks for men per week.


We spoke with family counsellor and parenting expert Alyson Schafer about what this means for parents who drink, and how to create a softer landing for those who may struggle to reduce their alcohol consumption.

What do parents who drink alcohol need to hear right now?

Alyson Schafer: Do not beat yourself up—that’s the first thing. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.  So just being compassionate with yourself, I think, is number one. We have to realize that for years we’ve had a false impression of the role alcohol plays in society. It’s associated with sophistication, culture, fun, and all those wonderful things. We haven’t been aware that we’ve all been enjoying a major carcinogen.

So the second thing is to understand that it’s easy for an addiction to grip you more than you realize. If you suddenly find it harder to pull back from alcohol than you anticipated, this has nothing to do with your character. Don’t think, “Oh, if I was a better person or had better boundaries, I could change.” Be very gentle with yourself. It takes more than willpower to change a relationship with alcohol.

Wait—why are we talking about addiction?

AS: Often people feel like the word “addict” doesn’t apply to them because they have a construct of what an addict is, which is pretty denigrating—someone sitting on the side of the road drinking out of a paper bag, for example. But think about phone addictions, endless scrolling, or kids with gaming—then here we are with our “mommy juice” to get through the dinner hour.

Many people are in the same place, using alcohol to manage. The good news is that there are many more support, services, outreach and ways to conquer this than ever before.

What can parents do if they struggle to reduce their drinking?

AS: Every reader here is going to be on a different place in their journey. Let’s start by understanding addiction, and a great metaphor is the pitcher plant:

Bees are drawn to the nectar at the top of the pitcher plant. And when they’re at the top, they’re eating all the lovely nectar, thinking this is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Meanwhile, the nectar is grabbing the bee’s legs and slowly pulls them down until the plant eventually devours them.

The first question is: where are you on your journey? Are you deep in the pitcher plant being consumed, or are you just on the edge?

Everyone needs a different method to help them drink less, then?

AS: Yes. For some people early enough in the journey, strategies for cutting back might work, e.g., only drinking on weekends, diluting drinks with soda, etc. Kudos to them.

But for people later in the journey, it’s much harder. They may say something like, “I was going to wait till the weekend, but Friday became Thursday evening because I had a bad day.” People are going to feel like failures, trying to quit based on a set of rules that aren’t going to work for them. But shame is not going to help you recover. Not from an eating disorder, not from an alcohol addiction, not from bad grades at school—shame is never our friend when it comes to personal growth and change.

Switching from alcohol to cannabis drinks is on many people’s minds. Is this effective?

AS: Most people who have an issue with addiction are feeding the reward centres in the brain. With this strategy—replacing alcohol with cannabis—they’re likely substituting one problem for another and could end up incorporating both into their week.

Again, everyone is at a different stage in their journey. People who want to try this should talk to their doctor and look at the research to see if cannabis is easier to wean off than alcohol. I can’t speak to that.

But let’s say I didn’t gamble, and you said: “Look, I know you’re really stressed out, and life is hard, and the kids are driving you crazy, and you normally pour a glass of wine, but why don’t we go to the casino instead?” If you haven’t started that addiction, why would you want to go down that path? It’s like taking a shortcut from figuring out how to emotionally regulate our lives. Why not get to the root cause and say, “I’m not handling life and its stresses well.” And learn to solve this in a more pro-social way.

What if parents just need to relax?

AS: Challenge yourself as to whether alcohol is actually relieving stress or anxiety. Allen Carr led the wave around changing a person’s thinking about the pros and cons of drinking, and his methodology debunks everything you might think is positive about alcohol. So if you think it helps you socially relax or reduces your anxiety, he says, “Well, let’s get curious about that.”

What would it be like to lean in and pay attention, e.g., “Am I really enjoying this third drink, or am I doing this because it’s a habit?” Get curious about how this is functioning and serving in your life and separate the rhetoric of what we’ve been trained to think about alcohol into the actual reality.

With anxiety, the first 20 minutes of having a drink will bring your anxiety down to a certain amount, but it will increase your anxiety for the rest of the evening and well into the next day. Or you might think alcohol is a social lubricant so that you can be funny and sociable. But it’s also the thing that causes you to make out with someone you didn’t want to, or punch the person you didn’t want to—or make a bad decision to drink and drive.

The more we pay attention, we may start thinking, “This is not serving me in the way that I want.” Then the desire to drink goes away when you change your thoughts about alcohol.

What are the upsides for parents who choose to drink less?

AS: So many! You’re definitely going to save money. But more importantly, you’re modelling for your children. Drinking habits tend to be multi-generational, meaning kids’ drinking patterns largely follow the modelling of their parents. So if you came home from work and poured a 5 p.m. cocktail, chances are your kids will too. We want to model good healthy behaviour, and we don’t want to pass our habits down to our kids.

The other thing is that our kids want us to live! If alcohol is causing cancer, and you want to be a grandparent to their children, then this might be your reason to cut back.

Also, alcohol impacts our capacity to connect. When we drink, we can socialize, but we cannot connect in the same way. Children know this—living with someone who drinks is very much like living with a depressed person. You can’t connect on a real level with your kids, which is what they need from parents for their overall well-being.

Is sobriety—boring? 

AS: Quite the opposite. When people become sober-curious, they realize that everything becomes the same when they drink. Let’s say you’re drunk at the ball game, the dinner party, the all-inclusive, etc. What ends up happening is when you don’t drink, life goes from black-and-white to Oz—everything is in technicolour. You do more, have more experiences, and realize how restricting and redundant life was while drinking all the time.

You’re more likely to say to your kids, “Hey, let’s go for a bike ride,” instead of wanting to hang around the backyard and drink. Life becomes richer, and more things happen. But when you’re in it, you don’t realize how limiting alcohol can be.

What are your final thoughts for parents who might be struggling with these new alcohol guidelines?

AS: A person rarely has a cold turkey moment. Some do, and good for them, but for most people, it’s a journey of trying and failing and trying again, experimenting until they find the right combinations or get enough tools for a mindset shift to rein in their drinking. And we start with that, just that desire to learn and change our relationship with alcohol, wherever that ends up.

And remember, your kids are watching how you tackle this change, this goal, or however you need to frame it. You can model how to overcome mistakes and pick yourself up after relapses. Be open about what you’re struggling with and ask for positive support, not criticism.

I don’t know how many attempts it will take for your readers to pull their relationship with alcohol in line with the way they’d like it. Even if it takes time, even if you slip up, remember that you’re modelling for your kids what it’s like to have grit and persistence as you get closer to a goal.

If you’re struggling with your relationship with alcohol, there is help. Your provincial or territorial helpline is free and can provide information on available services. Here is the CCSA’s list of toll-free numbers for each province and territory.

Related Articles