Parents Matter Most
For teens deciding whether to engage in underage alcohol use, no other adult is as influential as a parent.
And not only do parents' opinions about alcohol use matter most, but teens also think that their parents' influence on them is important and appropriate. Per the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the overwhelming majority of teens (80%) believe that their parents should have a say in whether or not they drink alcohol.
Most teenagers do not drink or use other drugs. According to 2016 Monitoring the Future data, only 37% of United States' middle and high school students have used alcohol in the past year.
However, research also shows that some adolescents use alcohol at very early ages. The U.S. Surgeon General reports that approximately 10% of 10-year-olds in the United States have started drinking. At the same time, research by the National Institute on Alcohol abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) shows that people who start drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives. Also according to the NIAAA, 90% of young people's alcohol use is in the form of "binge" drinking. Any form of risky drinking ultimately forces children and teens to face the potential negative consequences of that use, whether immediate or delayed.
Nonetheless, the news is mostly good! Over 60% of U.S. middle and high school students do not drink alcohol, and parents who harness their leadership position in the family can make that majority swell.
To prevent risky teen alcohol use, parents and other primary caregivers should talk with their children about alcohol as a drug, as well as share their own views about underage alcohol consumption with their children. This will ensure that children and teens know where their parents stand on this issue. Conversations should be productive and frequent.
Just as important in protecting children from the risks of underage drinking, parents and caregivers should set healthy examples for their children. Providing healthy non-use rules and boundaries, as well as modeling healthy alcohol use or non-use as an adult, are major protective factors for teens.
Talk the Talk
Research shows that parents do have a significant influence on an adolescent's decision to use, or to not use, alcohol. Studies by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have shown that children whose parents speak with them about the risks of alcohol and other drug use are approximately 50% less likely to experience later problems with use than kids who don't have the opportunity for this conversation.
One of the most effective ways to delay and prevent underage alcohol consumption is for parents to talk with their children about alcohol. Parents must share their values around alcohol as a drug that can be addictive, especially for young people. However, that's not the only topic of discussion protective for teens. When parents share their expectations of non-use for their underage children, children are motivated to meet those expectations so as not to disappoint their families. In fact, according to the NIAAA, teens who are aware that their parents would be upset with them if they drank are less likely to do so. Parents can also lead conversations with kids that explore the many pre-addiction health risks that early and/or heavy alcohol use by adolescents may have.
In hundreds of school communities around the world every year, FCD Prevention Specialists inform parents that, when it comes to alcohol and other drug use prevention, what is effective is not one 60-minute conversation, but 60 one-minute conversations. Short, frequent conversations in the car, over dinner, or in casual chats about pop culture are more effective than long, infrequent conversations, which can feel intimidating to both adults and kids alike. Parents should take everyday opportunities to talk about alcohol with children in informal, commonplace settings.
By having easy, health-based conversations with their children, parents create supportive, nurturing environments where children feel comfortable talking about the subject and asking questions. And in creating such open environments, parents and caregivers provide not only knowledge, but support, to their children. When teens learn about the unhealthy consequences of alcohol consumption from parents, they are encouraged to continue to look to their caregivers as a resource if needed.
Walk the Walk
Regardless of what parents say, children and teens will watch how adults in their lives act when deciding about their own use of alcohol.
It is in teens' natures to press limits. This fact makes it incumbent upon caregivers to hold the limits for their teens, lessening the likelihood that children will suspect they can "get away" with use. Therefore, consistently enforced rules must be in place.
Further, if parents say they disapprove of use, without equipping kids with convenient opportunities to choose non-use, they send a mixed message. Parents should make an effort to structure kids' time away from occasions and desires to use alcohol. Supporting teens' engagement in substance-free activities is critical to protecting them from alcohol use at early ages. Being busy with a rewarding alcohol-free life takes away risky idle time from teens and provides them with healthy sources of prosocial identity. Equally important is taking on the parental responsibility of providing a home environment where children and teens cannot access alcohol in any way.
Some parents think that letting children drink at home will help them develop an "appropriate" relationship with alcohol. Research indicates just the opposite is true. NIAAA studies observe that children whose parents allow them to drink at home experience the steepest escalation in drinking behavior, at the earliest ages. These children, compared to children of parents who do not let them drink, are more likely to drink more heavily outside of the home too. Permissive attitudes towards adolescent drinking, particularly when combined with poor communication and unhealthy modeling, can lead teens into risky relationships with alcohol.
Finally, as the most important adult in a child's life, a parent or primary caregiver must model a healthy adult relationship with alcohol and all other drugs. Parents must ask themselves if they drink to the point of intoxication, and if so, how frequently and how often in front of their children. Any such behavior can paint a picture of alcohol use that is unhealthy for children to see. Additionally, parents might question how they speak of alcohol use among adults in general, and how they might come across as "sanctioning" use by adults, even if this use is not by them. Rationalizing alcohol consumption as the best or only way to relax, socialize, mourn or celebrate can be a risky practice to hand off to impressionable children and teens. Parents instead can be vocal and active in supporting substance-free alternatives that fulfill the same human needs.
Be What Matters
Parents can support their children, teens and young adults every step of the way as these young people navigate their own healthy decision making about alcohol use and non-use.
Remember, most kids don't drink. Those to do are at much higher risk for negative health consequences. Parents who talk the talk and walk the walk protect their kids from risky use.
If you or someone you know is ready to step further into the prevention role as a parent or caregiver, we hope the following resources can help:
NIAAA's Underage Drinking Factsheet
SAMHSA's "Why you should talk to your child about alcohol"
SAMHSA's "Why small conversations make a big impression"
Lilly King is a third-year Bachelor's degree candidate studying Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at Northeastern University. Lilly has experience working with children and adolescents aged six weeks to 16 years in many different capacities, including camp counseling with the YMCA. Lilly interned with FCD Prevention Works during the summer of 2017 and is currently a Research Assistant at Northeastern's Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab, based at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Kayleigh To is a fourth-year Bachelor's degree candidate studying Health: Science, Society and Policy at Brandeis University. Kayleigh interned with FCD Prevention Works during the summer of 2017, chronicling her experience on the Brandeis Hiatt Career Center's World of Work Summer Internship Blog. A former child care provider and library volunteer, more recently Kayleigh has studied health care technology; health economics; and health, community and society.