How Alcohol and Stress Impact Parenting During a Pandemic

by | Jan 18, 2022 | Research and Innovation

Raising children during the pandemic isn’t easy. Combine that with the effects of alcohol, and it could lead to a more punitive approach to parenting, according to one San José State University researcher.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jennifer Price Wolf, associate professor of social work at SJSU, has studied just how these factors play a role in the way parents address child misbehavior. Her work was published in two research journals in 2021.

Headshot of Jennifer Price Wolf, associate professor of social work

Jennifer Price Wolf, associate professor of social work at SJSU.

The first, “Stress, alcohol use, and punitive parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic,” appeared in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect in July. The second, “Daily Stress and Use of Aggressive Discipline by Parents during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” for which she was a second author, appeared in the Journal of Family Violence in November. Both articles were written based on data Price Wolf gathered with researchers at The Ohio State University (OSU), led by principal investigator Bridget Freisthler, professor and associate dean of research in the OSU College of Social Work. 

Participants, all of whom lived in Ohio, shared their baseline parenting approaches, stress levels and alcohol consumption patterns in a pre-study survey at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, they responded to questions on their smartphones about their stress levels and parenting techniques every day, multiple times a day for about a month during lockdown.

The data gathered concluded that parents were more likely to use punitive parenting techniques during higher moments of stress, which occurred most frequently in the late afternoon and evenings. 

After stress had accumulated throughout the day, parents were more likely to resort to corporal, or physical, punishment, yelling at or shaming their children, explained Price Wolf. What’s more, parents who drank weekly or monthly were more likely to use these forms of discipline.

“Alcohol was like an accelerant,” Price Wolf explained. “The relationship between stress and punitive parenting already existed, and it became stronger when drinking was involved.”

Managing stress for better parenting

There is good news, however. The solution to this problem may be as simple as finding ways to manage stress.

“This points to the importance of trying to alleviate those stressors,” Price Wolf said. “Part of it is being mindful about when you’re most at risk, and later in the day seems to be an issue. So try making an easier dinner, make a simpler bedtime regime. 

“Later in the day is also a time when parents might want a drink,” she added. “Parents might see a drink as the possibility of relaxation. Or maybe they use punitive parenting and then feel guilty about it, so they have a drink afterwards. Make sure you’re drinking after the kids are asleep. Or drink less frequently and make sure you’re not drinking so much that you’re hung over the next morning.”

If you’re a parent who has been reaching for a drink more often since the pandemic began, you’re not alone, Price Wolf noted.

“Coping-based drinking is something that we’ve seen increase since the pandemic began. But finding other ways to cope might be better for promoting family welfare.”

Other ways to cope include mindfulness exercises like deep breathing, accessing mental health support or connecting with other parents, she added.

The research was conducted before Price Wolf joined SJSU in July 2020. In fact, the study was already in the works before the pandemic came to the U.S, explained Price Wolf. When lockdown was underway, it provided the opportunity to see how a situation as stressful as a pandemic could play a role in parenting techniques, she said. 

She and her fellow researchers have since completed a second wave and are now conducting a third wave of the study, which asks participants questions more closely tied to the circumstances of the pandemic, such as whether or not patients chose to vaccinate, as well as more specific drinking behaviors. That research will likely be published later this year. 

Even though we’re no longer under stay-at-home orders like at the beginning of the pandemic,  the recent surge in COVID-19 cases could mean many parents are having to self-quarantine and keep children at home. So there’s still plenty to take away from this research, Price Wolf noted.

In fact, she said gathering this data has helped her as a parent. 

“This made me think about how easy it is to slip into some of those negative parenting practices. It has helped me to stop and think about what I’m saying, reevaluate my stress and take care of myself to make sure that I have the capacity to care for others.”

Learn more about Price Wolf’s research.

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