UW Today

May 4, 2011

Adult-supervised drinking in teens may lead to more alcohol use

News and Information

Allowing adolescents to drink alcohol under adult supervision does not appear to teach responsible drinking as teens get older. In fact, such a permissive approach may actually lead to more drinking and alcohol-related consequences.

A new study led by University of Washington researchers suggests that allowing adolescents to drink with adults present may encourage alcohol consumption. The researchers advise parents to adopt a “no-use” policy for young adolescents.

UW researchers encourage parents to be strict about their teenagers alcohol consumption, especially during prom season.

UW researchers encourage parents to be strict about their teenagers alcohol consumption, especially during prom season.Sean McGrath, Flickr

“Parents often feel like they face a dilemma regarding their teenagers use of alcohol,” said Richard Catalano, co-author and director of the University of Washingtons Social Developmental Research Group.

“If parents forbid drinking alcohol, they worry that their son or daughter will be drinking in unsupervised settings with peers. This leads them to consider whether it is better to allow their adolescent to drink at home under their supervision so that they may learn to drink responsibly,” said Catalano, principal investigator for the study.

Parents tend to take one of two approaches toward teen drinking. Some allow their adolescent children to occasionally consume alcohol in small amounts with an adult present, thinking that teens will learn to drink responsibly if introduced to alcohol slowly in a controlled environment. Other parents take a zero tolerance approach by not allowing teens to drink alcohol under any circumstances. This less permissive position is prevalent in the United States, with local laws and national policies often advocating total abstinence for adolescents.

In the May issue of Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Catalano and his co-authors compared these two approaches. They surveyed alcohol consumption in 1,954 teenagers – about half in Washington State and half in the state of Victoria in Australia, where a more permissive approach to teenage drinking predominates. The research is part of the International Youth Development Study, which examines how culture shapes adolescent drug use and other behavior problems.

The researchers asked the participants about alcohol use, problems resulting from alcohol consumption and how often the teens consumed alcohol with an adult present. The youths began the survey in seventh grade and took it each year until ninth grade.

By eighth grade, 67 percent of the participants living in Australia reported consuming alcohol with an adult present compared with 35 percent of those in Washington State. In ninth grade, 36 percent of Australian teens compared with 21 percent of Washington State teens had experienced alcohol-related consequences, such as not being able to stop drinking, getting into fights or having blackouts.

Regardless of where they lived, youths who were allowed to drink with an adult present had increased levels of alcohol use and were more likely to have experienced harmful consequences by the ninth grade.

“Kids need parents to be parents and not drinking buddies,” said Barbara McMorris, lead author and senior research associate at the University of Minnesotas School of Nursing.  She cautioned that allowing adolescents to drink with adults present but not when unsupervised may send mixed messages to teens.

McMorris said, “Kids need black and white messages early on. Such messages will help reinforce limits as teens get older and opportunities to drink increase.”

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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