It’s 4.30am on a Saturday morning and I’m looking at four emails in my Inbox all from parents who are desperately looking for some kind of assistance in dealing with their teens who have ‘gone off the rails’. It’s the same story every week. It may be a different drug that they’re struggling to deal with now but when I eventually make contact with them the problems all started with alcohol. Too often I hear a statement from a parent like “My 14-year-old daughter may be drinking alcohol but at least she’s not using ice!” While some may believe that it’s ‘only’ alcohol, the reality is that this is a drug that many adults experience problems with and when you look at the potential impact it has on young people there are so many reasons why parents should try to ‘delay, delay, delay’. Some of these include:
- alcohol-related car crashes are a major cause of death among young people. Alcohol use also is linked with teen deaths by drowning, suicide, and homicide
- teens who drink are more likely to be sexually active at earlier ages, to have sexual intercourse more often, and to have unprotected sex than teens who do not drink. They are also more likely to be victims of violent crime, including rape, aggravated assault, and robbery
- Australian teens report that they are more likely to first use tobacco and illicit drugs after drinking alcohol, i.e., they were intoxicated and made decisions they wouldn’t if they had been sober
- teen drinking adversely affects learning and memory and can cause a range of behavioural, emotional, social and academic problems in later life
- a person who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol
With those facts in mind I thought I’d just bring you up-to-date with some of the most recent research in the area of alcohol and parenting. There is so much that has been published over the past 12-18 months (to be completely honest it’s pretty difficult to keep up-to-date with it) and I thought I would just share some of the key findings. I’m going to do this in a very different way and simply list a whole pile of ‘statements’ – hopefully they will provide you with some guidance if you’re still working out how to handle this complex issue, or make you feel just a little bit better about the decisions you may have already made …
Do Australian teens start drinking earlier and drink more than other teens internationally?
- average initiation ages and underage drinking rates are fairly similar across the world despite different legal purchasing ages and cultural norms – don’t believe that France, Italy and Greece don’t have issues in this space! They may not have as great a problem but it’s certainly growing
- a strong risk factor for early alcohol use by children is perceiving alcohol use as ‘normal’
- by the age of three, children tend to have beverage-specific knowledge and from four, children start to know about the alcoholic content of beverages. From six, they become aware of adult drinking norms, i.e., who is drinking and in what circumstances
- children’s knowledge around alcohol corresponds to their parents’ drinking behaviour – preschoolers watch their parents and are learning all the time
- white, tertiary-educated and employed mothers, as well as heavier drinking parents have more permissive attitudes and behaviours around teen alcohol use – i.e., they are more likely to provide alcohol to their children, or at the very least, condone its use
- children with problem behaviours such as aggression and disobeying rules that are difficult-to-parent may, over time, kindle parental permissiveness
- parents are likely to allow sips of alcohol believing it has a protective effect, making children less likely to drink. They may also think that it will help them resist peer influence to drink
- in fact, parental ‘pro-sipping’ beliefs have a strong association with children’s reported alcohol use, with longitudinal research finding sipping alcohol predisposes children to become adolescents who drink, i.e., children who sipped alcohol by age 10 were twice as likely as abstinent children to initiate drinking by 14
Is parental provision of alcohol ‘protective’? What if it’s only a small amount?
- recent Australian research found that there was no protective effect, in fact “… any supply of alcohol to adolescents, especially those aged 16 or younger, should be avoided as there is no benefit and is instead likely to increase how often adolescents drink”
- parental provision of alcohol is associated with increased adolescent alcohol use, subsequent binge drinking, alcohol-related harm(s) and symptoms of alcohol use disorder
- parental supply appears to be associated with increased risk of other supply, not the reverse, i.e, if you give them two drinks to take to a party, they are likely to then drink two more
- “Just one or two drinks on a Saturday night won’t hurt” – parents who provide one can of beer to their teen to take to a party every weekend should be aware that frequency of drinking is just an important predictor of future drinking problems as amount consumed. It is not protective.
What parental behaviours increase the risk of their teen drinking and which ones protect?
- parental behaviours that influence alcohol use included parental provision of alcohol, inconsistent parental feedback and unreasonably severe punishment. The risk of future problems increased when adolescents perceive a lack of closeness, warmth and involvement with parents
- authoritative parenting style (i.e., balance of warmth and strictness) is particularly important in late childhood in terms of reducing the risk of drinking but during adolescence may become less important than specific family management practices (i.e., setting clear rules and effectively monitoring behaviour)
- age-appropriate parental monitoring (i.e., knowing where your child is, who they’re with and when they’ll be home) is a protective factor for adolescent alcohol use, even as they get older and contact with parents decreases
What about parental alcohol use? What impact does this have on their children’s drinking behaviour?
- it does not appear to be parental alcohol use per se which has a direct impact on teen alcohol use, but rather children’s actual exposure to the drinking, i.e., when parents drink alcohol in the presence of children and they in turn see the consequences of drinking
- exposure to fathers’ alcohol use, rather than their use in general, appears to be particularly important in shaping children’s attitudes and values around alcohol
Only you can make the decision about what you do around the provision of alcohol to your child. Make sure that whatever you do it is based on the best information possible and ‘follow your heart’ – if it doesn’t feel right for you and your family, it most probably isn’t. Never forget that underage drinking is not inevitable, far from it, and research has found that parental provision is not protective and does not teach them how to drink responsibly in the future. You are an important role model and they have been watching and learning from you from a very early age. And, most importantly, remember that no matter what your child says, you’re not the only one who makes the decisions you do (and even if you were, does that really matter when it comes to keeping your child as safe as possible?) …
Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book ‘Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs’ was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.
Alcohol Change UK (2019). Alcohol and parenting: Fact sheet. https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/fact-sheets/alcohol-and-parenting.
Department of Health and Human Services (2009). Make a difference: Talk to your child about alcohol. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/MakeAdiff_4.pdf.
Jackson, C., Ennett, S. T., Dickinson, D. M., & Bowling, J. M. (2012). Letting children sip: understanding why parents allow alcohol use by elementary school-aged children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 166, 1053–1057.
Kuntsche, E & Kuntsche, S. (2019). Parental drinking and characteristics of family life as predictors of pre-schoolers alcohol-related knowledge and norms. Addictive Behaviors 88, 92-98.
Mattick, R. P., Clare, P. J., Aiken, A., Wadolowski, M., Hutchinson, D., Najman, J., Slade, T., Bruno, R., McBride, N., Kypri, K., Vogl, L., & Degenhardt, L. (2018). Association of parental supply of alcohol with adolescent drinking, alcohol-related harms, and alcohol use disorder symptoms: a prospective cohort study. Lancet, published Online January 25, 2018
Smit, K., Voogt, C., Otten, R., Kleinjan, M., & Kuntsche, E. (2019). Exposure to parental alcohol use rather than parental drinking shapes offspring’s alcohol expectancies. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 43, 1967-1977.
Staff, J. & Maggs, J. (2020). Parents allowing drinking is associated with adolescents’ heavy alcohol use. Alcohol Clinical and Experimental Research 44, 188-195.
Voogt, C., Smit, K., Kleinjan, M., Otten, R., Scheffers, T., & Kuntsche, E. (2019). From age 4 to 8, children become increasingly aware about normative situations for adults to consume alcohol, Alcohol and Alcoholism, 1-8.