The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Letting teens imbibe a little to teach responsible drinking seems to backfire, study finds

(MarioGuti/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Parents may be tempted to give teens an occasional taste of alcohol to teach responsible drinking habits, but a new study from Australia suggests this may have the opposite effect.

Compared with adolescents who don’t get beer or wine from Mom and Dad, teens who do are more likely to access alcohol from other sources, the study found.

And when parents supply the drinks, teens are more than twice as likely to binge-drink or show symptoms of alcohol use disorder as youth who don’t have easy access to alcohol.

“Our study shows that there is no rationale for parents to give alcohol to adolescents younger than the legal purchase age,” said lead study author Richard Mattick of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm, parents should avoid supplying alcohol to children,” Mattick said by email. “Modeling responsible alcohol consumption, enforcing strict alcohol related rules and monitoring of child behavior may also minimize risks of children using or misusing alcohol.”

For the study, researchers examined data collected over six years on 1,927 parents and teens ages 12 to 18. Parents and teens separately reported on any alcohol consumed by the youth in the study.

At the start of the study, when teens were 13 years old, on average, 15 percent of them got alcohol from their parents. By the end, when teens were almost 18 years old, 57 percent got drinks from Mom and Dad, researchers report in the Lancet Public Health.

Over that same time, the proportion of teens who had no access to alcohol declined from 81 percent to 21 percent.

When teens reported getting alcohol only from their parents one year, they were twice as likely as kids who didn’t get it from their parents to report having other access to alcohol by the following year.

This suggests that getting alcohol from parents doesn’t reduce the chance that teens will be supplied by other people.

Furthermore, parental provision of alcohol did not appear to help teenagers deal with alcohol responsibly, the researchers found.

At the end of the study, 81 percent of teens who got alcohol from their parents and from others reported binge drinking, or consuming more than four drinks on a single occasion, compared with 61 percent of teens who only got alcohol from others and 25 percent of teens who only got alcohol from their parents.

Teens who got alcohol from both their parents and other sources were also more likely to have symptoms of alcohol use disorders.

One limitation of the study is that the youth were generally affluent, and results from these families may not reflect what would happen with low-income youth, the authors note.

In addition, the definition of binge drinking — consuming four drinks at one time on a single occasion in the past year — may have underestimated the frequency of this habit for some youth and masked connections between sources of alcohol and overuse, the researchers also point out.

Alcohol consumption is generally lower in Australia than in other countries, and the study didn’t account for the amount of alcohol parents gave teens, only whether they did this at all.

It’s also possible that parents who thought their teens were already at risk for problem drinking chose to give their teens drinks at home and that this explained why some of these kids also had higher odds of alcohol use disorders or misuse, noted Stuart Kinner of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the author of an accompanying editorial.

“There is a view that if parents provide small quantities of alcohol to their teenage children and model low-risk drinking, these children will be less likely to drink in risky ways,” Kinner said. “The findings of this study suggest the opposite.”

— Reuters