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Teens and alcohol: Which parenting practices are protective and which are not?

There have been many studies examining what influences young people’s drinking behaviour. I’ve discussed many of these, including recent Australian research looking at parental provision of alcohol and whether or not it was ‘protective’ in previous blog entries. Even though greater numbers of school-based young people choose not to drink, the reality is that most Australians will drink alcohol at some point. It’s a legal product and so closely linked to socializing and having a ‘good time’ in this country, that it will be some time yet (if ever) before that situation changes.

Some young people are going to drink and the one thing that every parent wants is to ensure that if they do, they do not drink to excess. That’s why some parents choose to give a couple of bottles to their 15 or 16-year-old child to take to a party, i.e., believing they know what they’re drinking and therefore they’ll be safer. So what do we know about what influences teens to choose to drink? More importantly, what influences drinking to excess or drunkenness and what does the research tell us about the factors associated with reduced alcohol use by teens?

So many parents contact me who are really struggling with their teen in the area of alcohol and partying. They’re trying to follow ‘best practice’ but they have a son or daughter who is pushing every button and they’re terrified that if they crackdown too hard they run the risk of losing them. Here is an example of a Mum who contacted me a couple of weeks ago who felt like she had run out of options:

Sophie is a single mum with two daughters. The eldest, Kira, is now 18 and she never had any issues with her, however, the 15-year-old, Hannah is proving to be a nightmare. Although Sophie set out clear rules and boundaries with her first daughter and there were no problems, she admits that she let her guard down in a big way with Hannah. Sleepovers at friends’ places were a regular occurence from the end of primary school, with her daughter staying away from the family home for the full weekend more often than not. She tried to maintain contact with other parents but she had a full-time job and found it difficult and, anyway, Hannah kept telling her it wasn’t necessary. At that stage she had no reason to doubt her. Late last year she was contacted by her daughter’s school and informed that she had been caught with alcohol on a school excursion and from there everything unravelled. After a little digging, she found out that Hannah had been drinking to excess regularly since she was 13 and had been picked up by the police a number of times. Kira had collected her from the station, as well as from a hospital at least once, and had tried to deal with her younger sister and her drinking to protect her very busy mother. Sophie was devastated and racked with guilt. 

Sophie is now working with the school (as well as a couple of other health professionals) to try to get Hannah back on track. But what this mother could not understand was why she had no issues at all with Kira. Yes, she freely admits that she ‘let the reins loosen up’ a little more the second time around, but were there other factors at play?

As already said, there are countless studies in this area but I’ve always referred parents to one great piece of research by Bremner and colleagues from 2011. It’s a UK study of 5,700 students (age range of 13-15 years) that not only examined the wide range of influences on drinking alcohol, but more importantly how these worked together to impact on young people. None of the findings are particularly surprising, put simply, young people are more likely to drink, to drink frequently and to drink to excess if they:

  • receive less supervision from a parent or other close adult
  • spend more than two evenings a week with friends or have friends who drink
  • are exposed to a close family member, especially a parent, drinking or getting drunk
  • have positive attitudes towards and expectations of alcohol
  • have very easy access to alcohol

Research consistently find that parental monitoring is the key here. Bremner provides a couple of great examples of this, such as a study of boys and girls from both France and the UK that showed “the strongest predictor of heavier use of alcohol and other drugs was parents not knowing young people’s whereabouts on Saturday evenings”. In addition, American surveys conducted over many years have found “that the more often children (aged 12–17) eat dinner with their family, the less likely they are to drink alcohol, smoke or misuse drugs”. Age-appropriate parental monitoring is vital if you want to keep your teen as safe as possible.

But it’s important to tease these out a little, which of these influences are more likely to lead to drinking to excess or drunkenness? I haven’t included all of them here but some of the factors that influenced excessive drinking were as follows:

  • expectation of ‘having fun‘ was the strongest predictor
  • drinking levels of friends – likelihood of drinking to excess increases when most of their friends drink alcohol
  • finding alcohol very easy to obtain increases the risk by almost four times
  • amount of time spent with friends – simply spending more than two evenings with friends is a significant factor. Most importantly, spending all evenings with friends again increases the risk by four times

So what about drunkenness? What factors are at play here, where the greatest risk exists for teen drinkers? The authors of the report found the following:

  • frequency of drinking was the strongest predictor. As other studies have found, it’s not just how much young people drink that’s important, it’s also how often they do it that makes a difference. Parents who say “They’re only having one beer when they go out on a Saturday night” and believe that is protective are kidding themselves – even having one drink regularly is a risk factor
  • having a first drink when extremely young (6 or under)
  • family drunkenness – it’s not a surprise that role modelling is so important here, particularly if it is the parents who have been drunk. You were your child’s first teacher and you will always be an important influence, but it is vital that parents remember that they learn so much about alcohol from you from a very early age
  • buying their own alcohol or asking an adult relative/other adult to buy it for them

Most importantly, what can parents do to help ensure that their child has healthy values around alcohol? Although there are no guarantees (parents can do all the ‘right things’ and still have terrible problems in this area), the authors identified a number of family factors associated with reduced alcohol use by teens. Once again, none of these are surprising, but sometimes parents need to be told they’re heading in the right direction, particularly if their little darling is yelling and slamming doors, telling them that they hate them as they try to enforce family rules! Here are the protective parenting and family practices:

  • responsive and supportive parenting
  • child management practices involving clear, consistent and enforced rules
  • parental modelling of appropriate alcohol use
  • clear and open communication of expectations about alcohol use and potential disapproval when expectations are unmet
  • higher family cohesion, levels of family bonding and family cooperation
  • satisfactory child-parent relationships and children wanting to emulate parents

Boil it down and it is as simple as love your child, keep talking to them (even when the going gets tough), establish rules and boundaries that are bound in unconditional love, and remember you’re a parent and not a best friend … Are there any guarantees? Of course not, but just doing these few things means you’re doing the very best you can do and no-one can ask you to do more than that!

Bremner, P., Burnett, J., Nunney, F., Ravat, M., & Mistra, W. (2011). Young people, alcohol and influences: A study of young people and their relationship with alcohol. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Published: November 2019

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