Why do parents make the decision to let their teen drink? Is underage drinking 'inevitable' and will providing it be 'protective'?

I've written many times about why parents make the decision to let their teen drink. At a time when we know so much more about the risks associated with teenage drinking and the message we keep sending is 'delay, delay, delay', it is surprising that so many parents buckle and allow their child to drink, sometimes at a very young age. Now, if you believe providing alcohol to your child is the 'right thing to do' - that is your decision and no-one has the right to tell you to do otherwise ... but if you do not feel comfortable with doing this, then 'stick to your guns'! From what I see, the major reason for this behaviour, particularly from those parents who swore till they were blue in the face that they would never do it, is parental peer pressure, i.e., the belief that they're the only ones saying 'no'!

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation at a Parent Information Evening that was piggy-backed onto an Information Night for Year 10 parents. We had a huge turnout and there were many parents who wanted to speak to me afterwards, mostly about their concerns around parties and alcohol. At one point I was speaking to a mother who was trying to cope with a very forceful daughter who wanted to take alcohol to parties. She asked for my advice and I simply turned the question around and said "Do you feel comfortable giving alcohol to your 15-year-old daughter to take to a party?" There was an immediate and very strong "Absolutely not!" in reply. She then quickly added "But I'm the only one who feels like that, all the other parents allow it ..."

Luckily, there was a line of other Mums and Dads behind her and I asked them whether there was one of them who allowed their son or daughter to take alcohol to a party (remember they were all parents from the same year group). Not one of them said that they did ... There were at least 10 parents in the group and when I suggested they talk and support each other in this area their response was priceless. Almost in unison they turned around and said "But we're the only ones, everyone else does!" Really? Even if every other parent in the year did provide alcohol (which I highly doubt!), there were at least 10 of them that didn't ... couldn't they use that to their advantage?

But what does the research say? Why do parents let their teens drink? I recently came across a US qualitative study that attempted to tease out some of those reasons (Friese et al, 2012). It attempted to try to find out under what circumstances parents allowed their teen to drink at home, so it's important to note that this is not about providing alcohol for parties. None of the findings are particularly surprising but what was really interesting was that two-thirds of those interviewed (69%) indicated that they did not think it was a good idea to allow their teen to drink at home, with their initial response being that they did not condone underage drinking. However, during the interview it became obvious that they all had exceptions!

So what were those exceptions? These are the reasons that Friese and her colleagues identified:
  • drinking on special occasions - this included family celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, holidays and family vacations. Parents said that they felt "more comfortable allowing their teenager to drink when their family was around them". Holidays such as Christmas and New Year were also identified as times when teens were allowed to drink. An interesting one was family vacation, with parents allowing drinking in locations where it was more accepted, such as Europe. Teen's safety and the parents' ability to monitor their child were identified by the researchers as the reason parents allowed drinking at these times
  • teaching drinking practices - this is an 'oldie but a goodie'! The idea that letting them drink with you will teach teens how to drink responsibly, including how to drink in moderation and how to appreciate certain types of alcohol. This is also linked to the idea of 'demystifying' alcohol - removing the 'forbidden fruit'
  • drinking to preserve traditions - in this US study, this was identified in parents of Latin American or European backgrounds. These referenced their childhoods and the drinking culture in their family, with some believing that it had influenced their behaviour and taught them to drink more responsibly
  • parents feeling pressure to let their teens drink - some identified situations where another adult offered their child alcohol without their consent or simply felt pressure to let them drink. Some of these parents identified their partners as overruling them in this area, or other family members offering alcohol to their child at family celebrations. Having older teens was also seen as making withholding alcohol from younger children more difficult
  • parents' belief that underage drinking is inevitable - more than half of those interviewed held this view - it was simply going to happen and there was nothing a parent could do about it!
  • fear of harming their relationship with their teen - others feared that being too strict in this area could have negative consequences. One parent compared alcohol to the 'sex issue' saying "If you put in a rule that's really firm, it's not realistic." She stressed that the best she could hope for was that her son would use good judgment if he drank
  • harm reduction - once again, roughly half of the parents saw drinking as inevitable and wanted to offer advice and approaches on how to stay as safe as possible. Creating a safe place for open discussion appeared to be important to parents
As already said, there really aren't too many surprises here - most of the parents I speak to who have let their teen drink would usually identify one or more of these as the reason for their decision. All of these are valid and, as a parent, if you choose to let your teen drink alcohol, no-one has the right to tell you to do otherwise. Recent research, however, challenges some of the basic ideas behind some of these:
  • underage drinking is not inevitable - the latest statistics show that we have more non-drinkers amongst our school-based young people than we have seen since national data started to be collected. Growing numbers of young people have never consumed alcohol (rising from one in 10 in 1999 to one in three in 2014). The old chestnut of 'everyone will do it' is simply not true. Of course, lots of them will experiment and many will end up drinking regularly but let's not forget those that don't, won't and never have! When parents throw their hands up and give in, instead of supporting those young people who are making the tough decisions, they really are letting their child down ...
  • giving them alcohol will not necessarily teach them to drink responsibly and is not 'protective'. A longitudinal study from UNSW released in January (Mattick et al, 2018) followed 2000 children and parents over a 6-year period through their adolescence and found that as far as parental supply of alcohol was concerned, there was "no evidence of any benefit or protective effect, either directly … or indirectly". It didn't protect from problems in the future, instead, providing alcohol to children was "associated with subsequent binge drinking, alcohol-related harm(s) and symptoms of alcohol use disorder". Most importantly, the idea that when you give teens alcohol "you'll know how much they're drinking" was also found to be false. The research found that parental supply "is associated with increased risk of other supply, not the reverse", i.e., if you give them alcohol, they're more likely to go and find more!
I'm sure that some people believe that I am some sort of wowser and that I'm 'anti-alcohol' - I'm really not, I really couldn't care what adults do in terms of drinking. It's a legal product and you can do what you want, as long as you don't hurt anyone else ... Why I try to challenge parental beliefs in this area is that I meet an extraordinary number of school-based young people that have had the most terrible things happen to them when they have gone out on a Saturday night and messed around with a product that they simply don't have the maturity or brain development to deal with. Senseless violence, sexual assaults, horrific accidents and falls, and children as young as 13 being placed on life-support because they've stopped breathing after drinking so much are just some of the things I have seen ... I challenge anyone to not change their views about the provision of alcohol to teens after speaking to a 15-year-old girl tell you that she was sexually assaulted when drunk, usually after her parents gave her a couple of drinks to take to a party or she went to an event where alcohol was permitted or tolerated ... I can tell you, it's a devastating experience!

You have to make the decision about what you do around the provision of alcohol to your child. Make sure that whatever you do it is based on the best information possible. Underage drinking is not inevitable - far from it - and research has found that it's not protective and does not necessarily teach them how to drink responsibly in the future! And remember, no matter what your child says, you're not the only one who makes the decisions you do!

Reference

Friese, B., Grube, J., Moore, R., & Jennings, V. (2012). Parents' rules about underage drinking: A qualitative study of why parents let teens drink. Journal of Drug Education 42, 379-391.

Mattick, R. P., Clare, P. J., Aiken, A., Wadolowski, M., Hutchinson, D., Najman, J., Slade, T., Bruno, R., McBride, N., Kypri, K., Vogl, L., & Degenhardt, L. (2018). Association of parental supply of alcohol with adolescent drinking, alcohol-related harms, and alcohol use disorder symptoms: a prospective cohort study. Lancet, published Online January 25, 2018 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S2468-2667(17)30240-2.

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