Mixed Messages From Parents & Teenage Drinking

How many parents have encouraged their teenage kids to drink at home believing that in doing so it is reducing the risk of their teen engaging in harmful use of alcohol? I know my parents did and I’ve known many parents of teenagers since who have done the same.

The logic seems sound – by letting teens drink in moderation at home it takes away the illicit and rebellious associations, and encourages sensible drinking behaviour.

Research however suggests the aforementioned logic may not be so sound after all.

Drinking on Two Continents

A recent study conducted in Australia and the US sought to compare the outcomes of two differing attitudes towards teenage drinking. The predominant Australian attitude, of parents allowing their adolescent children to consume alcohol in small amounts on occasion if an adult is present, was compared with the attitude “zero tolerance” for youth drinking which is more prevalent in the US , where teens are often not allowed to drink alcohol under any circumstances.

To test how these different approaches are related to teen drinking researchers from the Centre for Adolescent Health in Melbourne, Australia, and the Social Development Research Group in Seattle surveyed more than 1,900 seventh graders. About half were from Victoria, Australia; the rest were from Washington State. From seventh to ninth grade, investigators asked the youths about such factors as alcohol use, problems they had as a result of alcohol consumption, and how often had they consumed alcohol with an adult present.

By eighth grade, about 67% of Victorian youths had consumed alcohol with an adult present, as did 35% of those in Washington State, reflecting general cultural attitudes. In ninth grade, 36% of Australian teens compared with 21% of American teens had experienced alcohol-related consequences, such as not being able to stop drinking, getting into fights, or having blackouts. However, regardless of whether they were from Australia or the United States, 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.

The researchers suggest that allowing adolescents to drink with adults present may act to encourage alcohol consumption. According to the authors, their results suggest that parents adopt a “no-use” policy for young adolescents. “Kids need black and white messages early on,” says the study’s lead researcher Barbara J. McMorris. “Such messages will help reinforce limits as teens get older and opportunities to drink increase.”

Allowing adolescents to drink with adults present but not when unsupervised may send mixed signals. “Kids need parents to be parents and not drinking buddies,” Dr McMorris said. “Adults need to be clear about what messages they are sending.”

The study published in the the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, supports findings of previous research along the same lines. In a study of 428 Dutch families, researchers found that the more teenagers were allowed to drink at home, the more they drank outside of home as well. What’s more, teens who drank under their parents’ watch or on their own had an elevated risk of developing alcohol-related problems.

Your Thoughts

These are not isolated studies, we have commented on the connections between teenage alcohol consumption and parenting previously on this blog.

What are your thoughts on allowing teenagers to drink alcohol at home? Is it something  you do with your teenagers? Do you think it makes a difference?

I’d be interested to know people’s differing experiences in relation to this, so please leave share you view in the comments section below.

Image by Xificurk


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  • T Andersen

    First off, from the title of the article I thought I was going to be reading about teenagers that were nearly adult, not seventh graders. I am not interested in any way discussing giving alcohol to humans who are clearly children. I am a parent who tries very hard to remember what it is like crossing the imaginary and often very hypocrytical and confusing line of kid to adult. We tell them to act like adults (whatever that means), while grounding them and treating them like children while army recruiters are dogging them to join the military (which translates to…adult in my book). I do not lie to my children (except of course for those dark Santa and the Easter Bunny years). I…when I feel the time is appropriate…have been very open with my old children/young adults about my own experiments with warm beer (barf), cigarettes(gag), pot(paranoia), and sexual development (not in the tacky sense, in the responsibe sense). I have been up front and honest about the risks, and my fears about all the things that are about to be put before them by their friends. I have preached till blue in the face that if and when that day does come when they drink warm beer out of the trunk of a buddies car and get too drunk to drive to STAY PUT or CALL HOME. I have promised them if they do the RESPONSIBLE thing I won’t nag endlessly, but if I discover they are drinking and driving I’ll pull all the nagging and punishments I can find in my mom bag out and it is on.
    I have two sons seven years apart in age. I am of the camp that once they are old enough to drive, I would offer them a light beer, or glass of wine with dinner, offer a beer on a hot summer day after mowing (not as was suggested in your article to become drinking buddies), but so they could start to learn of the effects, their limits, and take some of the YAHA!!! BOOZE!!! Out of the equation.
    Neither son would ever take us up on the offer. They both said it was weird. That said, my oldest never drank a beer until his 21st birthday. My youngest son I have discovered drinks (on the sly) with friends out back (we live in the country) or in his room; he is seventeen. Now of course I’m not thrilled about them drinking; but they are being responsible (or so it seems); staying at home, and keeping it low key.
    I am really having a problem with society at the moment. It seems to me that as a group we must decide; at what age we are going to call them adult and treat them accordingly. If they are not adult at seventeen and eighteen then you can’t have them to feed the war machine. My son has friends entering into the military whose parents would ground them for having a warm Bud-Light. He has friends who have not practiced the birth control taught constantly in our home who have babies, married, living on their own; and yet their principle grounds them (Saturday school) for some minor infraction like being tardy.
    Also this system is very hard on parents. These teenage/humans are portable. They drive; they leave with friends; friends come and go through my house constantly. I am not going to frisk every teen that comes through my door to see if they are carrying a beer in a pocket or purse; and yet I am left completely vulnerable to these minor drinking laws. And the thing is it is always coming from someone sneaking it in. As dilegent and responsible as I try to be; they are human beings; which means where’s there’s a will there’s a way.
    My last comment is that oddly enough evidence of beer seems to appear after visits from kids from very conservative homes; who when I speak to their parents are very, very positive their kid would never ever drink or smoke. Often these are your more heavy handed parents, and often the super invovled in all school events parents. In the end it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of parent you are though; liberal and open; conservative and clamped; conservative and open; or liberal and clamped. We are dealing with human beings stepping their toes into the very turbulent stream of adulthood for the first time. In the end, as all adults do; they are going to do what they want no matter what we want. Hopefully we have layed down enough ground work early to help them make good choices on their new journey.

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