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What do we know about the impact of older siblings’ drinking behaviour on younger children?

Trying to ensure your teen develops safe and positive attitudes around alcohol is never easy. Children are exposed to and learn about alcohol from an early age and, not surprisingly, research has found that young people’s drinking behaviour is influenced by the people around them, whether it be their parents, friends or peers. But what do we know about the impact of older siblings’ drinking behaviour on younger children?

Ruth and her partner have three children. Emily is the eldest and has just turned 16. For the past six months Ruth has found it extremely difficult to deal with her daughter’s behaviour. Despite her best efforts she goes out partying every weekend, breaks curfew and when she decides to come home, she is obviously intoxicated. Of course, she continues to worry about Emily and her safety but she has had little success in changing her behaviour and, as a result, her focus is now shifting to the potential impact her daughter’s behaviour is having on her two younger children. What messages are they picking up from what they’re seeing at home each weekend?

When one of your children is acting out in any area it can, and usually does, affect the whole family. When you clearly state your expectations and create age-appropriate rules and boundaries, as Ruth and her partner have done, and then have a child just totally refuse to comply, it’s going to have an impact on how your other children respond to whatever future rules you decide to set them. How to deal with that problem is another issue altogether. But when Ruth contacted me she wanted to know if there was any research that had been conducted that could provide an insight into what impact Emily’s drinking behaviour would have on her younger children?

It shouldn’t come as a great shock that the research in this area does indeed suggest that teens do tend to engage in similar alcohol use behaviours to those of their older siblings, however, it’s not clear whether this is due to older siblings modelling (or exposing) younger siblings to their consumption patterns, or other factors (Kothari et al, 2014). A more recent Dutch longitudinal study (Cook et al, 2023) found adolescents who were exposed to more sibling drinking were more likely to have drunk alcohol during the past 6 months and past 4 weeks and also to binge drink. That doesn’t sound too good for Ruth and the issue she is facing. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that it’s those younger children who actually endorse modelling their older brothers and sisters who are likely to show the greatest similarity in alcohol use. Sharing friends with older siblings also increases the risk.

This suggests that the best course of action for Ruth is to try to ensure that Emily’s behaviour is not seen as ‘positive’ by her two younger children. As I said to her when we spoke, what can happen in these cases is that the younger siblings see the adverse effect this type of drinking behaviour is having on the family and view it in a very negative light and, as a result, have no desire to model what they’re seeing. Sadly though, that’s not always going to happen – it’s a tough situation and there are no easy answers …

But what if you have ‘adult’ children still living in your home? What impact does seeing a 21-year-old sister or brother regularly stumbling into the house after a big night out have on a younger child’s future alcohol use? Young adults are not leaving home as early as they did in the past and so this exposure is increasingly becoming more of an issue for many parents.

I’ve got to be honest and say you couldn’t have got me out of the family home fast enough when I left school. When you combine that with my Mum and Dad practically pushing me out of the door I ended up living independently at quite an early age!

We now live in very different times with many ‘transitions into adulthood’ occurring much later, e.g., leaving home, getting married, having children. In the past, one of the freedoms gained by moving away from the family home was that you could drink alcohol (and/or do a range of other things) away from the prying eyes of your parents. If you had younger siblings, they were also unlikely to know too much about what you were or weren’t doing … Today, that’s just simply not the case for many families, with younger children far more likely to be exposed to their ‘legally-aged’ older siblings’ drinking behaviour.

Watching an older brother or sister coming home drunk every Saturday night is not going to result in positive outcomes for younger children living in the house. We know that limiting their exposure to drinking is important – having more adults in the house who are consuming alcohol is going to increase that exposure. Given what we know about the potential negative impacts of drinking in front of children, and particularly regular exposure to drunkenness, it’s important for parents to try to set some boundaries in this area for their older children living at home.

There is a ‘flip-side’ to this issue, with studies also finding that older siblings can be an important source of protection for younger siblings when they make the decision to start drinking. In her 2020 qualitative study of a group of 15-24 year-olds, Wilkinson describes the intergenerational sharing of ‘protective’ practices and attitudes relating to alcohol, drinking and drunkenness between siblings. A more recent Dutch longitudinal study (Cook et al, 2023) found that older siblings continue to have an important influence on teen drinking once it has started. If that is the case it means they could potentially be used to assist in promoting positive changes in drinking behaviour, particularly in regard to providing safety messages.

So, what are the takeaways from the research in this area? If they continue to live in the family home, older siblings and their drinking behaviour are undoubtedly going to have an impact on younger children, so here are some simple ways to reduce the potential negative effects, as well as possibly use their influence to ensure some positive outcomes:

  • Clearly state your expectations around the use of alcohol in the family home
  • Set clear guidelines for your older children’s drinking behaviour when around their younger siblings, particularly in relation to drunkenness
  • Ensure any alcohol use occurring in the home is modelled responsibly and, if possible, is not only associated with celebrating. Linking drinking with food, e.g., having a glass of wine with a meal, sends an important message
  • Do your best to prevent older children glorifying risky drinking by sharing their ‘war stories’ from the night before
  • Once a younger child starts drinking, encourage the sharing of protective practices between siblings. If they’re open to it and even reasonably responsible in this area, older brothers or sisters could raise and discuss topics such as working out limits and safety in licensed premises with their younger siblings
  • If younger children are being exposed to older siblings’ high-risk drinking behaviour – keep talking about it with them. What are they seeing and how do they feel about it? Remember, you don’t want them to see this kind of drinking as positive

When it comes to parenting in any area, it always really comes down to the same three things – stating your values and expectations, creating age-appropriate rules and boundaries, and maintaining communication. It doesn’t matter whether your child is a toddler or in their early 20s, if they’re living in your home, these same three things apply!

REFERENCES

Cook, M., Smit, K. & Kuntsche, E. (2023). All alcohol exposure counts – testing parental, older sibling, best friend and peer exposure on young adolescent drinking in a seven-wave longitudinal study. Addiction 118, 276-283. 

Kothari, B.H., Sorenson, P., Bank, L., & Snyder, J. (2014). Alcohol and substance use in adolescence and young adulthood: The role of siblings. Journal of Family Social Work 17, 324–343.

Wilkinson, S. (2020). ‘She was like “Don’t try this” and “Don’t drink this” and “Don’t mix these”’: older siblings and the transmission of embodied knowledge surrounding alcohol consumption. YOUNG 28, 242–258.

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