Adult-Supervised Drinking in Teens May Lead to More Alcohol Use

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Allowing adolescents to drink alcohol under adult supervision does not appear to teach responsible drinking as teens get older. In fact, such a "harm-minimization" approach may actually lead to more drinking and alcohol-related consequences, according to a new study in the May 2011 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (JSAD).

Barbara J. McMorris, Ph.D., of the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota, and colleagues from the Centre for Adolescent Health in Melbourne, Australia, and the Social Development Research Group in Seattle, Washington looked at two different approaches parents often take toward teen drinking: harm-minimization and zero-tolerance policies.

Harm-minimization policies suggest that alcohol use is a part of normal adolescent development and that parents should supervise their children's use to encourage responsible drinking. In this approach, parents allow their adolescent children to consume alcohol in small amounts on occasion if an adult is present. The thinking is that teens will learn to drink responsibly if introduced to alcohol slowly in a controlled environment. This has been the predominant approach in many countries, including Australia.

Zero-tolerance policies suggest that all underage alcohol use should be discouraged. As the name implies, there is "zero tolerance" for youth drinking, meaning that teens should not be allowed to drink alcohol under any circumstances. This less permissive position is predominant in the United States, with local laws and national policies often advocating total abstinence for adolescents.

To test how these different approaches are related to teen drinking, McMorris and colleagues surveyed 1,945 seventh graders (989 female, 956 male). About half were from Victoria, Australia; the rest were from Washington State. Students completed comprehensive questionnaires on alcohol use, related problem behaviors, and risk and protective factors annually from 2002 to 2004 when they were in ninth grade.

By eighth grade, about 67% of Victorian youths had consumed alcohol with an adult present, as did 35% of those in Washington State, reflecting general cultural attitudes.

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In ninth grade, 36% of Australian teens compared with 21% of American teens had experienced alcohol-related consequences, such as not being able to stop drinking, getting into fights, or having blackouts.

However, regardless of whether they were from Australia or the United States, youths who were allowed to drink with an adult present had increased levels of alcohol use and were more likely to have experienced harmful consequences by the ninth grade.

"Kids need parents to be parents and not drinking buddies," according to the study's lead researcher, Barbara J. McMorris, Ph.D., of the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota. Allowing adolescents to drink with adults present but not when unsupervised may send mixed signals. "Adults need to be clear about what messages they are sending."

The researchers suggest that allowing adolescents to drink with adults present may act to encourage alcohol consumption. According to the authors, their results suggest that parents adopt a "no-use" policy for young adolescents. "Kids need black and white messages early on," says McMorris. "Such messages will help reinforce limits as teens get older and opportunities to drink increase."

In a related study in the May issue of JSAD, researchers from The Netherlands found that, among 500 12- to -15-year olds, the only parenting factor related to adolescent drinking was the amount of alcohol available in the home. In fact, the amount of alcohol parents themselves drank was not a factor in adolescent drinking. These results suggest that parents should only keep alcohol where it is inaccessible to teens. In addition, parents should "set strict rules regarding alcohol use, particularly when a total absence of alcoholic drinks at home is not feasible," according to lead researcher Regina van den Eijnden, Ph.D., of Utrecht University in The Netherlands.

"Both studies show that parents matter," McMorris concludes. "Despite the fact that peers and friends become important influences as adolescents get older, parents still have a big impact."

Sources
Influence of Family Factors and Supervised Alcohol Use on Adolescent Alcohol Use and Harms: Similarities Between Youth in Different Alcohol Policy Contexts; McMorris, B. J., Catalano, R. F., Kim, M. J., Toumbourou, J. W., & Hemphill, S. A.; Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72(3), 418-428.

Alcohol-Specific Parenting and Adolescents' Alcohol-Related Problems: The Interacting Role of Alcohol Availability at Home and Parental Rules; van den Eijnden, R., van de Mheen, D., Vet, R., & Vermulst, A.; Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72(3), 408-417.

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