Strict parental drinking rules can restrain teen drinking

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
alcohol, responsible drinking, parental influence, alcohol abuse
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NIJMEGEN, THE NETHERLANDS – Some parents are of the opinion that allowing their teens to sip a small glass of wine with dinner or have a swallow or two of beer at a family barbecue will introduce them to responsible drinking. However, a new study from researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands has reported that a laissez-faire attitude from parents can lead to drinking problems for their teens. It also noted that strict parental drinking rules can reduce their teens’ impulses to drink. The findings were reported online on February 15 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. The results will be published in the May 2012 print edition of the journal.

The study group was comprised of 238 adolescents aged 12 to 16 years (120 females; 118 males). Working memory capacity was used as a measure of the ability to reflect on behavior, while parental rules regarding the teen’s alcohol use were treated as an index of the motivation to reflect on behavior.

The researchers reported that frequent drinking can establish changes in the processing of alcohol cues that can, in turn, facilitate renewed drinking unless the resulting impulse to drink is inhibited. Corresponding author, Sara Pieters, MSc, explained, "With repeated alcohol use, cues that are previously associated with alcohol use, such as the sight of a beer bottle, become increasingly important. This might be due to alcohol-induced changes in the brain's reward system and the formation of memory associations." The researchers noted that their results revealed that stricter parental rules about drinking are highly protective, especially for males.

The term "approach tendencies," Pieters added, can be understood by asking if a person is inclined to approach or to avoid a stimulus. "In most people," she said, "tendencies to avoid are automatically triggered by threatening stimuli such as a snake, and approach-tendencies can be triggered by appetitive stimuli such as water when thirsty. In heavy drinkers, stimuli that have been associated with alcohol use automatically trigger a tendency to approach."

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"Studies have shown that adolescence is marked by a temporal lag in the maturation of two brain systems, one related to emotional and motivational processes, one to control behavior and thoughts," noted Rebecca de Leeuw, PhD. She added, "Whereas the former develops relatively fast during puberty, the latter continues to develop until adulthood, around 25 years of age. This means that adolescents are more likely to engage in reckless behavior. In addition, alcohol affects the former system by making it hypersensitive to cues associated with alcohol use, while it affects the latter system by decreasing the ability to control behavior. This means that adolescents are at a higher risk for an imbalance between impulsive versus reflective processes in general."

Ms. Pieters agreed that the motivation to inhibit behavior is often low in teens. Thus, she noted that they explored the role parents play in the motivation to inhibit approach tendencies. She explained that they chose working memory capacity as a marker of the ability to inhibit because it is known that adolescent with good working memory are better able to inhibit impulsive reactions to alcohol cues. She added, "Results indicated that in young adolescents, approach tendencies were related to alcohol; however, we found that if parents set strict rules regarding their offspring's alcohol use, adolescents could inhibit these approach tendencies, particularly males. Conversely, permissive parenting seems to exacerbate the link between approach tendencies and alcohol use for adolescent males."

Both Ms. Pieters and Dr. de Leeuw noted that previous research had reported that stricter parental rules tended to be associated with less alcohol use among their children. Dr. de Leeuw explained, "However, this is the first study that, when it comes to alcohol, investigated the role of parents in relation to impulsive processes." Ms. Pieters theorized that young adolescents perhaps internalize parental rules in such a way that approach tendencies can be more successfully inhibited.

Ms. Pieters summarized that the relationship between parental rule-setting and adolescent alcohol use is well-established: stricter rules are associated with less alcohol use. She added that the study extended previous research on the topic by indicating that parental rules might also be related to the degree to which approach tendencies are linked to changes in alcohol use, with approach tendencies being predictive of increases in alcohol use for adolescents with permissive parents. “This suggests that parental rule-setting is particularly relevant for adolescents who are already at increased risk to develop alcohol-related problems for reasons such as genetic factors."

Source: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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