The Secondhand Effects of Alcohol Use on Loved Ones and Society at Large
by Michael Walsh
We’re all aware of the negative effects of secondhand smoke. Carcinogens from cigarette smoke permeate the lungs of not only the smoker but everyone in their vicinity. [Updated March 2023]
We know this for a fact – the science is clear. Hence, NO SMOKING signs pretty much everywhere.
What we don’t talk about very often, which is revealing itself as a large-scale concern across western society, is the secondhand effects of alcohol use.
It’s fairly obvious that households, where there is someone with an alcohol use disorder, pose an unsafe, and often highly toxic environment to spouses and children. But what about homes where adults drink moderately?
The effects of alcohol in family systems can be felt even when drinking poses no threat of physical or emotional harm whatsoever.
If you’re anywhere on the spectrum from moderate drinker to struggling with an alcohol use disorder, it’s essential to be aware of the effects of alcohol use on the people around you. The reality simply is, that drinking does impact family, friends, and even strangers in the orbit of people who are consuming alcohol.
Effects of Alcohol on the General Public
Think back to a night out in a packed club or bar when the energy was high and inhibitions were low.
I think we’ve all got a few of those nights in the memory bank (hazy as they may be). Do you remember an instance when everyone was having a blast and then all of a sudden something went sideways?
Alcohol tends to heighten emotions and dampen self-control. That can create a feeling of liberation and euphoria, but it also causes people to say and do things they never would if they weren’t intoxicated. And there can be some sobering consequences as a result.
A recent study found that every year 53 million Americans experience some sort of harm as a result of someone else’s drinking. That’s one out of every five people! It’s a staggering statistic and one that hasn’t received very much attention.
Similarly, there is a Canadian report that analyzed crime data over a ten-year period. It found that more than 20% of violent crimes and 7% of non-violent crimes, involved a perpetrator under the influence of alcohol or attempting to acquire it.
Examples of harms that people face in public arenas as a result of others' alcohol use include:
- Unwanted sexual advances
- Car accidents
- Damage to property
Now revisit that busy nightclub scene. I’d be willing to bet that on that night, or one like it, you have at least witnessed (if not been subject to) something similar. It’s almost an accepted aspect of nightlife. But experiencing these types of things negatively impacts people, maybe more than they’re even aware of at the time.
Alcohol Use Disorder and Moderate Drinking Both Have an Impact
Growing up I knew kids who had it rough at home because of alcohol. Kids whose dad drank too much and got really mean really fast. Homes where there was always a threat of some sort of abuse or endless financial problems because their parent couldn’t hold a job.
And then there was my house(s) depending on which set of parents I was with. My mom and step-dads house was a damn good time. It was a constant swirl of vibrant, social energy that centred around lively dinner parties and trips to fancy restaurants. And, it also centred around alcohol. But in comparison to what some of my friends went through, I thought my parents were doing the drinking thing right.
I remember asking my step-dad if I could bartend at a gathering for him and his friends when I was ten years old. He said, “absolutely!”! So I put on a vest with some suspenders and a Dixieland hat, and did my best to rock the role of grown-up bartender. I was a ham and they ate it up. I got so much attention that night and I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to be an adult. An adult exactly like my parents.
It wasn’t long after that, that I snuck into the liquor cabinet, mixed up my first amateur concoction and threw it back. Then I stole my first cigarette from a pack my mom left sitting around. I wanted to be cool and feel like a grown-up. So I did what the grown-ups I knew best had modelled for me. Ten years later I found myself in the thick of my own substance dependencies. Coincidence? I really don’t think so. Not for me at least.
While over at my dad and step-moms house alcohol was around as my dad was a heavy drinker who eventually got sober at 50 but less parties and more seeing my dad on multiple day benders and chronic drinking behaviour where some mornings he had to take a swig my the vodka, run or rye bottle at 6am to "straighten himself out."
Growing up was tricky as my parents divorced when I was seven years old and both remarried not long after. I was sort of loved and protected periodically and would say confidently that I was provided for. The male parental figures in my life both drank a fair bit but my biological dad was the one who had to "lose it all" in order to shift that aspect of his life. The female parental figures were light drinkers. But without even realizing it, I learned that alcohol was just a part of our family culture. It was baked into the way we lived. And so I took it with me when I went out into the world on my own.
What Are the Effects of Alcohol in Family Dynamics?
Alcohol has an amazing way of weaving itself into the fabric of social and family dynamics. Even people who drink just one glass of wine a night tend to do it almost ritualistically.
That glass marks the end of a stressful day. It signifies and facilitates relaxation. Social interactions become easier with it. And in small amounts most of us are certain, it can’t possibly be a problem.
But let’s talk about relationships. In particular, relationships with your children.
According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, PhD, an internationally renowned developmental biologist, children’s brains are primarily in what is called a Theta State until the age of seven. These low-frequency brain waves enable children to absorb everything in their environment. It’s how they learn how to walk, talk, and behave. They learn cultural norms, family expectations, and how best to get their needs met.
What children are exposed to in their early developmental years largely informs the kind of person they become.
I bet you taught your kids to brush their teeth twice a day, right? Of course, it’s a no-brainer. And with enough verbal reinforcement, they do it on autopilot now. And as much as they can learn from your direct instruction, they also learn from your non-verbal cues. If every night mom and dad share a bottle of wine, they’ve recorded that behaviour right along with their dental regimen.
They may be subconsciously picking up on a variety of things here like:
- Drinking is how people relax
- Alcohol with dinner is a given
- Mom needs a drink to relieve stress
- Sitting down with my family always involves alcohol
- A few drinks every day is normal
When drinking is a daily part of the household routine, it’s modelling something to kids that may very well transfer over to their adulthood and in turn, become a part of the culture they someday create with their own family.
The effects of alcohol in family culture don’t only happen amidst turmoil, chaos, and violence. It also manifests in loving, safe families where consuming alcohol is relatively uneventful but consistently modelled.
I recently had a client say to me when we started working together, “I just want to set a good example for my daughter. Be a good role model.” When she decided that it was time to address her relationship with alcohol, her child was the motivating factor. And that’s true for a lot of parents who seek to change their drinking habits.
If you’re noticing that your kids are commenting on, or even mimicking your behaviour then you know what my client knew. Kids are aware, they’re always paying attention and they’re emulating you.
Maybe the first step to re-evaluating your relationship with alcohol is being really honest with yourself about the effects of alcohol use on the people around you. And if that feels like a daunting task to take on, there’s help available.
Check out this amazing Ted Talk by Emily Lynn Paulson on Second Hand Drinking.
Get Help Creating Your Personal Roadmap
It can be really scary to arrive at the realization that you have a drinking problem, no matter how big or small.
But it’s a lot less scary when you have an experienced guide to help you sort things out.
I’m an accredited Addiction Recovery Coach offering worldwide virtual support, and in-person support across Canada. If you’re interested in exploring 1:1 recovery coaching to help you cut back your drinking or stop drinking entirely, I’m happy to answer your questions.
I offer a no-charge consult call to anyone who has questions about their own substance use, or the substance use of a family member. These calls are completely confidential with no pressure to make a decision before you feel entirely ready.
I’d also like to invite you to read more about my personal story here.