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Why Parents Let Teens Drink: Part 1

November 13, 2015  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

As we approach the holiday season, many of us will be thrust into social situations where alcohol is consumed. The weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year can be festive and celebratory but, regrettably, also a time of risk for teens and young adults.  According to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, on an average December day, more than 11,000 young people, aged 12 to 17, will use alcohol for the first time, a figure only exceeded during the summer months. 

In a study, Parents' Rules About Underage Drinking (funded by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and published in the Journal of Drug Education) researchers interviewed parents of teens to investigate why parents permit underage drinking and under what circumstances parents allow their teen to drink at home. The “whys” and the “circumstances” are important since consuming alcohol at an early age may influence a teen’s later drinking behavior. (This article contains excerpts from the study.)

Rules About Teen Drinking

According to the study, when parents were asked whether they allowed their teen to drink alcohol, most parents' initial response was that they did not condone underage drinking. About 70% indicated that they did not think it was a good idea to allow their teen to drink at home. However, during the course of the interviews parents revealed a number of exceptions to their initially stated opposition to underage drinking. These contradictions came out when parents were asked: Some parents who do not normally allow their teenagers to drink allow them to drink on special occasions. Think of an occasion when you allowed your youth to drink

Interestingly, many parents indicated numerous exceptions to their no drinking rule, including: 

  • special occasions, such as family celebrations
  • when attempting to teach their teen about drinking
  • when trying to preserve family and cultural traditions
  • when parents felt pressured to allow their teen to drink
  • the fear that being too strict could harm the relationship with their teen
  • the fear that forbidding drinking would lead to a teen’s rebelling
  • the possibility that teens could endanger themselves (such as driving and drinking)

Drinking on Special Occasions

Most of the parents allowed their kids to drink on special occasions, including celebrations such as holidays, weddings, birthday parties, and family vacations.

Some parents stressed moderation when drinking in a family setting. Drinking was permitted as long as the teen did not “overdo it” as one parent explained. “[He] was fifteen or sixteen. He was drunk. And I pulled him aside and said,  just don't embarrass the family. And he didn't do anything really stupid. He wasn't barfing in the bushes or anything, so I guess it was okay.”

One mother discussed a family holiday party, “Last New Year's Eve we had a big party here at the house and we let the kids have a flute or two of champagne…New Year's we'll let them have some and Christmas Eve we usually let them.”

The researchers noted that a teen’s safety and parents’ ability to monitor their teen’s behavior appeared to be two underlying reasons for allowing their teen to drink on special occasions. 

Teaching Drinking Practices

Some parents reported that they let their teen use alcohol to teach them to drink responsibly, including teaching how to drink in moderation, how to minimize getting drunk, and how to appreciate certain types of alcohol. In particular, parents wanted to teach their teen how to drink appropriately before being exposed to outside influences such as peers or before going off to college. “I figure that I'd rather have ‘em learn how to drink properly at home, with us, than learn with a bunch of teenagers who just guzzle beer … and throw up.” 

Another parent mentioned that allowing teens to drink small amounts of alcohol with dinner would reduce alcohol problems later in life: “The kids who grow up in a house where they get a sip of wine or, watered down glass of wine with dinner, it actually seems to help prevent alcohol abuse.”

Some parents reported that letting children try alcohol would demystify it. “If you allow your children to drink and taste wine, they're not going to tend to overuse it or abuse it. You teach them that it's something of value.”

Drinking to Preserve Tradition

Some parents allowed their teens to drink alcohol because it was part of the family culture. In particular, parents who were of Latin American or European background referenced their childhoods and the drinking culture that existed in their family when they were growing up.

One parent said that he noticed a difference in the drinking behavior of European kids: “They all start drinking when they are 10 or 12 years old and it's a moderation thing, it's social, we're having a glass of wine with dinner. Most of them don't drink very much, and they certainly never had problems with alcohol in terms of finding empty bottles around the house, tucked under the bed or something like that. It just seems that they have a better sensibility about alcohol.”

Parents Feeling Pressure to Let Their Teens Drink

Some parents reported that they were opposed to letting their teen drink alcohol, but have been in situations where another adult offered their teen alcohol without their consent or where they felt some pressure to let their child drink. One mother who did not condone underage drinking was overruled by her husband who allowed their daughter and her friends to play a game of beer pong in the home.  Another mother described how her son was offered alcohol at a family celebration without her consent. Having older children may also make withholding alcohol from younger children more difficult.

Fear of Harming Their Relationship with Their Teen

Some parents mentioned that being too strict was not the best tactic to use. They expressed their belief that forbidding teens to drink would have negative consequences. One mother stated it was best to find a middle ground between forbidding them to drink and allowing them to drink: “If you're too strict with your kid, they're just going to rebel.” 

Some parents felt that it was best to teach their teen how to make good decisions. In particular, parents were very concerned about drinking and driving. For instance, one mother stressed that all that she could hope for was that her son used good judgment while under the influence of alcohol.

Harm Reduction

Believing that teens are likely to drink alcohol, many parents wanted to offer harm reduction approaches to avoid dangerous situations. Thus, creating a safe place for open discussion was important to parents. 

Parents were clear about their rules concerning drinking and driving. Parents preferred that their teen call them for a ride if they were inebriated or stay overnight at a friend's rather than drive home. A parent elaborated on her stance about her teen's drinking and expressed the contradictions parents deal with when telling their children not to drink but at the same time want to make sure that they are safe if they do drink. One consequence of this is the party at home (with alcohol) so kids don't drive.

Misperceptions and Myths

Although the number of families interviewed (60) was relatively small and the location in Northern California may not be completely applicable to our local situation, this study is important because it provides an in-depth look at when and why parents allow their teens to drink alcohol. The findings suggest that underage drinking prevention efforts aimed at parents should take into account the different motivations they have for letting their kids drink. In many cases parents are making incorrect assumptions about the impact of their decision to let their kids consume alcohol; a decision that may actually put their teens at risk now and in the future.

Part II of this article discusses some of the misperceptions and myths raised by the parent interviews. 

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