Letting Teen Drink Under Parent's Watch Backfires

As prom night approaches and parents begin to worry about what might happen during after hour parties, some might be tempted to try to teach their high schoolers to drink responsibly – by allowing them to consume alcohol under supervision.

That approach, scientists now say, is dead wrong.

A new study shows that teens who drink with an adult supervising are more likely to develop problems with alcohol than kids who aren’t allowed to touch the stuff till they hit age 21.

“The study makes it clear that you shouldn’t be drinking with your kids,” said Barbara J. McMorris, lead author and a senior research associate at the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota.

An American Medical Association study reported in 2005 that 25 percent of teens acknowledged they had been at a party where underage drinking was occurring in the presence of a parent. Those are the parents McMorris and her colleagues are hoping the study will reach and teach.

For the new study, she and her colleagues rounded up 1,945 seventh graders and then tracked them for three years. Half of the teens were from Victoria, Australia, the other half from Washington State.

Each year the kids were given questionnaires that asked about their experiences with alcohol and about their relationships with their parents. The teens were asked how often they’d consumed more than a few sips of any alcoholic beverage each time they were surveyed.

When they hit the eighth grade, the teens were asked how many times in the past year they’d consumed alcohol “at dinner, or on a special occasion or holiday, with adult supervision” or “at parties with adult supervision.” Researchers didn't specifically ask teens if the adults were drinking with them or were just present. They were also asked how many times they’d experienced harmful consequences, such as “not able to stop once you had started,” “became violent and got into fight,” “got injured or had an accident,” “got so drunk you were sick or passed out,” “had sex with someone you later regretted,” or “were unable to remember the night before because you had been drinking.”

Australian teens were more likely than their American counterparts to be drinking with adult supervision by eighth grade — 66 percent versus 35 percent — and they were more likely to have experienced harmful consequences from their drinking — 36 percent compared to 21 percent.

No matter which continent kids and parents came from, it was clear that the strategy to teach teens responsible drinking habits through supervised consumption was backfiring.

That finding didn’t surprise the experts.

“I think the study says something pretty important,” said Patrick Tolan, director of Youth-Nex: The University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. “Parents need to make it clear that it’s not OK for kids to drink until they reach the legal drinking age – a line has to be drawn.”

Still, many parents seem to have a particularly difficult time drawing lines when it comes to alcohol, said Mary O’Connor, a professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California—Los Angeles. “There are people I know who are very responsible parents in many ways who think that this is part of being a responsible parent,” O’Connor said.

That may be related to our own mixed feelings about a substance that is actually a legal, mind-altering drug.

What parents tend to forget is that teens are not just smaller versions of us. Their brains have not finished developing and studies have shown that alcohol has a very different effect on the unfinished brain, O’Connor said.

“We know from both animal and human studies that alcohol affects brain development,” O’Connor said. “The teenage brain is much more vulnerable to begin with and we now know that repeated drinking can lead to long term deficits in learning and memory.”

Parents should model moderation
Beyond this, there’s mounting data showing that it can be dangerous to start drinking young, said Dr. Brian Primack, an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Studies have shown that kids are four times more likely to become alcoholics if they start drinking before age 15, Primack said. So, is it enough to simply draw the line and tell your kids they can’t touch a drop till they’re 21? Will that glass of wine with dinner — made all the more necessary by rebellious teens you live with — encourage them to drink too much?

Not necessarily, experts say.

“You want to model moderation,” Tolan explained. “You don’t want to be drinking a lot in front of them – or inviting them to parties where your friends will be drinking a lot. That will confuse them and lead them to think that it’s OK to drink a lot.”

You don’t have to lock down the liquor cabinet, he added, but “that said, you should remember that kids experiment.”

Parents should know know exactly what and how much alcohol they’ve got, O’Connor said. “And you want to taste it periodically to make sure it’s not been diluted,” she added.

That’s well and good for when your kids are at home. But what about that prom night situation?

The solution might be a simple one — let your teen host the party at your house. “I think alcohol free parties are a great idea,” McMorris said.


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  • by Anonymous Location: Chocowinity, NC on May 6, 2011 at 10:23 AM
    President Bushes Daughters????? Um How about every kid in a bar in DOWNTOWN Greenville. Kids are going to try things. @ 18 you are legally considered an adult. So why shouldn't 18 year olds be able to drink? I'm sorry but if at 18 you are old enough to be REQUIRED to register for a DRAFT that can call you up and send you to fight a war, then you should be able to drink. You can be an irresponsible drinker at 18, 21, 36, or 60. The key is RESPONSIBILTY. not age. As for all of you saying irresponisble parenting??? How many of you drug your kids with adderall everyday and send them to school, whats the difference? You don't teach them respect, you don't discipline you drug your child. Yet I'll bet you're the ones sitting in judgement about 18 year olds drinking. OH wait I forgot Drugging your child is LEGAL. MORONS.
  • by Sam Location: Kitty Hawk on May 4, 2011 at 12:00 PM
    This is the deal. This report is a big crock of hogwash, and so are some of these state laws. I will drink any kind of alcohol, mainly whiskey, and used to smoke regularly and every now and then did some harder drugs in my college days, and still got my BSA/MSA with a 3.7 GPA while working part time. What needs to be done is this. Lower the legal age to 16, legalize and tax marijuana, and legalize and tax cocaine. Have every hard drug (Acid, Meth, Heroin, etc.) illegal and make stricter laws for that. Also allow alcohol sales at college sporting events in NC like they do in other states and like they do in professional sports.
  • by Liz Location: Winterville on May 1, 2011 at 11:09 AM
    Whether you agree with it or not, drinking under the age of 21 is illegal. If you allow your children to drink underage, you are sending a message that it is ok to break the law. This may lead to breaking other laws down the road because it is perceive as acceptable. It will probably also cause them to live a life feeling they are entitled to do whatever they want, whenever they want causing problems for the rest of us!
    • reply
      by Sam on May 4, 2011 at 12:14 PM in reply to Liz
      Well tell that to President Bushes daughters and not us on here. As far as sending the message that it's okay, well that message has already been sent by the politicians and EVEN COPS have sent that message. Oh I forgot it's only okay if you are involved with the government cause those government people are the ones that have the sense of entitlement. Because of them, the laws are a joke and when the day comes and my son/daughter graduates form high school, I'll be glad to buy them some alcohol for celebrating their high school graduation and if someone is not invited to my house then they will have to just hit the road and scram if they try to start messing things up for my family.
  • by Marine @ 19 Location: Greenville on May 1, 2011 at 09:56 AM
    Thank you, Walt and Anonymous. When I enlisted in the Corps at 19, I (seriously) had never had a drink, but I could not understand why those who had chosen to do a job where they could likely lose their lives could not drink if they wanted to. Luckily, in my case, there were NCO's who felt the same way about this where I was stationed and they had parties that they invited us to where they allowed us to drink and we could stay there for the night so we would not have to find a way home afterwards. Also, I did not become a "lush" in later years because of this. 5 or 6 times a year I may drink and then I only have 2 to 3 drinks at each event. Also, I do not know what Neal is talking about when he says we don't fight for the USA! I know I certainly was!
  • by Jesus made wine on May 1, 2011 at 09:39 AM
    Drugs are drugs- including alcohol. Making it illegal did not work in the US- never will. We live in a drug culture. Just attended the funeral of an alcoholic friend. Mid 50's in age. He always seemed to have a troubled mind. Nowadays, there is good professional help for those that can afford it. The PROPER meds. are better than self medicating with street drugs and alcohol. A COMPETENT and CAPABLE MD is critical. Drinking in front of kids will tend to induce the same behavior in many- guaranteed. Slapping your child will promote negative/destructive behavior. The fewer foreign compounds we ingest the better off we all are.
  • by Anonymous on Apr 30, 2011 at 09:22 PM
    Oh yes... because forbidding something always works on a teenager. LOL
    • reply
      by Neal Shlonson on May 1, 2011 at 06:08 AM in reply to
      If the kid don't listen, throw them out of the house. Put the brat on the street.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on May 1, 2011 at 10:06 AM in reply to Neal Shlonson
        Have you been drinking?
  • by Phillipe Location: New Bern on Apr 30, 2011 at 04:14 PM
    So, the 5 or so number of countries that have a drinking age of 21 are right while the 100 countries that have age 18 or less drinking age are wrong? French and Italians drink plenty of alcohol, but they have a low number of abuse cases. America has a high number of abuses. I was born here, but my European parents let me drink moderate amounts of alcohol from age 16. 10 years later, I drink wine once a week and never beer or liquor. It seems like alcohol laws here are based on religion and prudish beliefs rather than actual facts.
    • reply
      by US-First on Apr 30, 2011 at 10:37 PM in reply to Phillipe
      I like your style but your statements lack any factual support. Just because you say "French and Italians drink plenty of alcohol, but they have a low number of abuse cases", we are supposed to accept it. Also you say abuse is higher in the US but of course how is that measured compared to countries that don't give a hoot if their youth drink. Your motives become clear in your final statement as does your elitist and supposed enlightened euro-centric attitude. And majority does not = correct thinking. Most of the world population once believed the earth was flat. At one point in that little debate it was 1 correct vs. everyone else wrong.
      • reply
        by GreenwithEnvy on May 1, 2011 at 08:11 AM in reply to US-First
        Very well put,,,even Thomas Jefferson would be proud.
    • reply
      by From Russia W/luv on May 1, 2011 at 05:09 AM in reply to Phillipe
      Or, we can look at a country like Russia, where alcohol seems to rule the day. It really all stems from how you learn about alcohol. Saucy parents have a higher risk of having saucy children. The old saying 'if you fight at 18, you should be able to drink a beer' never made sense to me. How does fighting age relate to drinking?
  • by Neal Shlonson Location: Kinston on Apr 30, 2011 at 02:08 PM
    If you drink, you belong in jail. Simple enough. Boo hoo, I can't handle life. Hopefully a lot of kids and their parents end up in the back of a cruiser over this. Lock 'em all up.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on May 1, 2011 at 10:05 AM in reply to Neal Shlonson
      Did you go to school in Lenoir County?
    • reply
      by Sam on May 4, 2011 at 12:06 PM in reply to Neal Shlonson
      I feel sorry for your children if you have any. Stop acting all holier than thou.
  • by Huh? Location: Enc on Apr 30, 2011 at 12:41 PM
    Do we really have parents arguing for the right to give their minors a drink? Pathetic! The drinking age is 21, and there is a reason for it. What is even worse is that someone needed a study to confirm what common sense should tell everyone.
  • by John Location: Simpson on Apr 30, 2011 at 08:50 AM
    To teach children to drink in moderation, give them jello shots as infants.
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