Important Ways Parents Can Help Prevent Underage Drinking

What we say and do has a powerful effect on kids trying alcohol

children and alcohol - family toasting with alcohol
Alcohol is a part of many celebrations but there are important ways to protect kids. Morsa Images/Getty Images

It's pretty tough—if not downright impossible—to shield kids from images and messages that show people enjoying alcohol or using it to feel better or happy. And these messages aren't just prevalent in movies or in ads: Alcohol is often a part of how we socialize in real life and is a common part of family dinner or a celebration at home or at a restaurant. But while parents needn't worry that their children will be more likely to abuse alcohol later in life just because they see their parents have an occasional glass of wine with dinner or toast with alcoholic drinks at a party, it is nevertheless very important that they learn about what can make alcohol more enticing to kids and what they can do to minimize the chances of their children engaging in underage drinking.

A July, 2016 National Public Radio (NPR) report by Aimee Cunningham highlights two recent studies that parents should know about: one study that concluded that the risk of kids binge drinking can be reduced through a parenting approach that blends firm limits with warmth and support and another study that highlights the value of educating parents about how to talk to their kids about alcohol. Here's what the research from these studies show, and what parents can learn from them to protect their kids from alcohol abuse.

The first study, by researchers at Claremont Graduate University, examined the relationship between parent behaviors that may be predictors of binge drinking in children in adolescence and later in life. Some highlights of what they found:

  • Low monitoring by parents, low parental warmth, parents' own alcohol use, and parents' expectancies that their kids will drink were linked to higher rates of binge drinking during adolescence.
  • Low parental monitoring, low parental warmth, parents' alcohol use, parents' expectancies of kids' drinking, and underage use of alcohol were associated with binge drinking during young adulthood.
  • Binge drinking during the teen years and young adulthood were both linked to a greater likelihood of being arrested 8 to 14 years later.

    The second study, led by Christine, Jackson, Ph.D., senior research scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, examined the effect of a home-based prevention program on kids' susceptibility to alcohol use. The researchers found that when parents used these parenting program methods at home with their elementary school-age kids, the children were less likely to experiment with and drink alcohol four years later.

    In previous research, Dr. Jackson also found that many parents mistakenly believe that allowing kids to try alcohol would prevent underage drinking; the researchers found that letting kids try alcohol at an early age was actually associated with an increased risk of alcohol use in children.

    What Parents Can Do to Minimize the Chances of Kids' Underage Drinking

    So what can parents learn from research on the effects of parenting on kids' alcohol use? Here are some important takeaway lessons:

    • Monitor your kids. "Keeping an eye on what kids are doing is important," says Candice Donaldson, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Claremont and lead author of the study. When kids are young, we know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. This shouldn't change, whether your child is age 5, 10, or 15.
    • Know the importance of showing support. Research shows that a loving and warm attitude is just as important as monitoring kids to prevent underage alcohol use. "Warmth and mutual understanding and respect, instead of being cold and not listening to kids, is crucial," says Donaldson. "It's not surveilling them like a hawk but having a warm relationship that's helpful in preventing binge drinking."
    • Know their friends. One of the most important things we can do when our kids go to a friend's house for a play date is to ask important questions, such as whether or not there are firearms in the house. As kids get older, parents need to keep asking questions and know the parents of their child's friends. If your child is invited to a party, ask who will be supervising, and whether or not alcohol is kept in the house and how accessible it may be to curious children.
    • Know that your attitude is important. Donaldson and her fellow researchers found that parents' expectancy of alcohol use was a factor in how likely kids were to indulge in underage and binge drinking. In other words, do not assume underage drinking is inevitable—parents can and do influence whether or not kids drink alcohol.
    • Begin to talk about alcohol use early. When it comes to talking to kids about alcohol, it's better to start early, long before they are a teen who's offered alcohol at a friend's party. Doctors recommend talking to kids about the dangers of alcohol as early as age 9.
    • Do not let kids try alcohol. Studies have shown that letting kids sip alcohol does not prevent underage drinking and does not minimize their interest in alcohol.
    • Be aware of your own behavior. If alcohol is constantly used in your home or if you have a habit of indulging too much or relying on alcohol to relax you after a hard day, this is the model your child will learn from and take after.

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