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Parents drinking with teens could make matters worse

Should parents share a drink with their teenagers?
Should parents share a drink with their teenagers?

Maybe you had your first sip of wine or beer at home, with your parents. Or maybe it was with friends, in shadowy circumstances. Either way, did it matter in the long run?   

The latest research suggests parents drinking with their teens leads to problems. Teenagers are more likely to abuse alcohol and hurt themselves if their parents introduce them to alcohol than if parents have a zero-tolerance policy at home. 

That’s the conclusion from new research comparing kids in Washington state to kids in Australia, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

"The first message parents should have is, 'Don’t drink until you are of legal age.' It's not good for your body, it's not good for your mind, and it's illegal." says Richard Catalano, professor of social work at the University of Washington and director of the Social Development Research Group.

Catalano is in the camp that supports zero-tolerance, but he has friends and colleagues in the other camp, which looks toward certain European countries and supports what they call "harm-minimization." That's based on the idea that kids will end up drinking one way or another, and if you introduce teens to drinking at home, they’ll drink more responsibly.

A cross-cultural survey

Catalano heads up an ongoing survey of about 2,000 7th and 9th graders, at schools across Washington state and in Victoria, Australia. (They also survey 5th graders, but that data isn't part of this specific study, because the kids were too young to have meaningful data.) In Washington, they went to 50 different schools.

They questioned the kids and then revisited them a year later. An earlier study found that the Australian teenagers drank a lot more than the Washington teenagers. Catalano says that's not too surprising, since, until recently, the Australian government advised parents that it’s a good idea to introduce their kids to drinking at home.

This follow-up study, led by Barbara McMorris at the University of Minnesota, strongly supports the zero-tolerance camp. The Australian teenagers had more bad things happen than the Americans: more episodes of binge drinking, more blackouts, more accidents.

Ignoring their parents' advice?

That means, even though the Australian teens are drinking responsibly with their parents, it's not translating into protection. That might mean teens are reacting like this, says Catalano:

"You’ve kind of said, 'My mom and dad say it's okay to get drunk. It's great they gave us the house [this week], but next weekend we’re going out in the woods and having a kegger."

While there are powerful anecdotes supporting either approach, the overall evidence in this series of studies seems to support the zero-tolerance approach toward drinking in the early teen years (which is when a majority of teenagers first try alcohol). A second article in the same journal concludes that the more alcohol is available (i.e. unlocked) in the house the more likely that teenagers will abuse it.

Larger trends may be at work, too, at least in the United States. The latest "Healthy Youth Survey" by the Washington Department of Health shows teen drinking here has been declining for a long time:

"In the past 20 years, there’s been a big drop in 8th and 10th graders who report drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. Since 1990, youth drinking is down for 8th graders by over half, from 29 to 14 percent in 2010. Drinking among 10th graders has dropped from 44 to 28 percent. Since 2008, about 20,000 more youth in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade report that their parents talked to them about not drinking alcohol."

Not the last word

Still, it's unknown what happens to these 9th graders as they get a little older.  Perhaps, the ones who started drinking earlier, with parent supervision, will mellow out -- and their peers who delayed will be the ones binge-drinking in college. The researchers hope to re-visit the same set of Australian and American teenagers, now that they're getting older, to see what further patterns emerge.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.