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Underage Drinking: Parental Influence

April 4, 2015  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

As a followup to the previous Risky Business article dealing with underage drinking in Falmouth, it’s important to emphasize the influence that parents and grandparents have on a teenager’s alcohol use.

A research study from the University of Pittsburgh published last year in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that parents' approval and drinking behaviors were the biggest factors in children trying alcohol for the first time between the ages of 8 and 12.

The study included 452 children who took part in the Tween to Teen Project — an ongoing study on the risk factors associated with early alcohol use. The researchers spoke with the children every six months and their parents once a year for several years to determine if the children had ever tried alcohol and in what context; what their parents' views on them trying alcohol; and, how often their parents talked to them about drinking and whether their parents drank. The parents were asked if they approved of their children trying alcohol, how often they spoke to their children about drinking and how often they drank in the past six months.

More than 20 percent of the kids had tried alcohol for the first time between the first interview and age 12 — the main reasons were the children’s perception of their parents' views on drinking, the parents' self-reported approval of children trying alcohol, and whether the parents currently drank.

According to a press release about this study, “This research suggests that if children do not see their parents as strongly disapproving of child sipping, the children will be more likely to take a first step into alcohol use. More than that, however, it shows that if parents drink in front of their children, their children will be more likely to sip or taste alcohol as a child.” And, “They (parents) also need to be aware that there is no research that establishes that 'teaching' children to drink or letting them drink in the home protects them from later involvement in binge drinking or alcohol problems."

Why Do Teens Drink?

As our kids approach their teen years, they begin to experience many emotional and physical changes, and these changes are not always easy. During this often challenging time, some kids may experiment with alcohol.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for most children, it is not just one thing that influences them to drink, but rather a combination of factors:

Stress: When children worry about things like grades, fitting in, and physical appearance, they may use alcohol as a way to escape their problems.

What You Can Do: Encourage your child to get involved in sports or other extracurricular activities as a healthier way to cope with his or her problems.

Peer Pressure: The age range between 11 and 18 is an impressionable period when youth are especially susceptible to outside influences such as peers, family members, and the media.

What You Can Do: Help boost your child’s confidence by helping him or her learn different ways to say “no” and reminding him or her that real friends would not pressure him or her to drink.

Transitions: Life events such as transitioning from middle school to high school, breaking up with a significant other, moving, or divorce can cause children to turn to alcohol.

What You Can Do: Reassure your child that things will get easier, and make sure he or she knows that drinking is not a solution.

Environment: If children grow up in an environment where their parents or peers drink a lot and/or view drinking favorably, they may be more likely to drink themselves.

What You Can Do: If you choose to drink, set a good example by drinking in moderation, and make sure your child knows that underage drinking is not acceptable.

Genetics: Children who come from a family with a history of alcoholism are at an increased risk for becoming an alcoholic.

What You Can Do: If alcoholism runs in your family, have an honest discussion with your child to make sure he or she understands the seriousness of the disease.

An Open Letter to My Teenage Son About Drinking

Kathy Radigan, a freelance writer and blogger, and mother of a teenage son wrote an open letter in the Huffington Post in response to concerns about parenting a teen and the ever-looming threat of underage drinking. In a preface to the letter, Ms. Radigan stated, “I want him to know where I stand on engaging in behaviors that are at best risky and at worst illegal or life-threatening. I never want my son to say that I wasn't clear about my feelings -- so I'm writing them out here, for all to see.”

Dear Tom,

The legal drinking age in this country is 21. Please know that dad and I will never allow you to have alcohol in our house or in our presence until you reach that age. Please also know that no good has ever come from a group of teenagers drinking. It's a recipe for all kinds of disasters.

If you should choose to drink, you'll not only be breaking the rules of our house, you'll be breaking the law. If you get stopped for driving under the influence, or the police get called to a party where you have been drinking, you may be in a position where we can't protect you.

Always call me and your dad. ALWAYS. No matter what you have done. Don't ever follow up a bad choice with one that's worse just because you're afraid of disappointing us or making us angry. Will we be happy? Of course not. But we would much rather get you and any friend who wants to come with you home safely, than get a call saying you are NEVER coming home.

Let me be clear that the fact that we love you and will stand by you does not in any way mean we will stand by while you do things that you know aren't good for you.

There are those who will tell you that your parents are being unreasonable and totally unrealistic. Some may tell you that you are a teenager and it's a rite of passage to get drunk. They may even regale you with stories of their own youthful mistakes.

Listen to your own heart and trust your gut. Also know there is nothing cool about waking up in your own vomit, or having a DUI before you are 18.

Your father and I are so proud of the man you are becoming. We love you so much that we don't care if you hate us. That's our gift to you -- we are your parents, not your friends.

Always, Mom

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