Lots of people like to relax occasionally after work or on the weekends with a glass of wine…or three. There’s nothing wrong with getting a little inebriated now and then as long as it’s not a nightly ritual or affecting your job or relationships, right? Maybe not, at least if you are the parents of a teenager.
According to a recent study that took place through the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the United Kingdom, children who have seen their parents intoxicated are twice as likely to get drunk on a regular basis themselves.1 But it’s not just parents’ personal drinking habits that influence their children. Parents also play a key role in determining when their children are introduced to alcohol, the amount of supervision placed on their children — such as knowing where they are on any given evening and how much time they’re spending with friends. These represent critical points where appropriate guidance could greatly reduce the likelihood that a young person will drink frequently and drink to excess.
The research was conducted through a survey of 5,700 children between the ages of 13 and 16. They were asked questions about the drinking habits of their parents, friends, and themselves, as well as how much supervision they typically receive. The data showed that 20 percent of the teenagers said they had been drunk by the age of 14 and 50 percent said they had been drunk by 16.
The parents who do not keep close tabs on their teens’ whereabouts in the evening were much more likely to have children who spend time drinking alcohol. Therefore, it makes sense that the teens who spend more time out with friends are also more likely to report that they drink. Those teenagers who spend more than two nights a week hanging out with their friends are more than twice as likely to be getting intoxicated. When they spend every night with their friends, they are more than four times as likely to drink to excess.
Some of the conclusions drawn by the researchers make it seem inevitable that teenagers will drink too much, and maybe that is true for the majority of teens today. But the outcomes were far worse in certain situations. Those who had tried alcohol before they were 10 years old were at much greater risk of becoming teenagers who drink both regularly and excessively. It seems the combination of easy access to alcoholic beverages and little or no parental supervision increases the teens’ overall risk of overindulging. And having seen their parents intoxicated sends the message that this is normal conduct.
It is important to understand that drinking in teenagers with developing bodies has far different effects than it does on fully mature adults. Research that took place in 2010 at the University of New Mexico Medical School in Albuquerque found that teen binge drinking can cause significant cognitive damage. Study director Dr. Robert J. Thoma says, “Heavy drinking may disrupt normal neuro-developmental processes that hone and sharpen attention and executive function during adolescence in that alcohol may selectively target the frontal lobes.” The frontal lobes control decision-making ability, the ability to focus, social skills, planning, and exercising judgment.
And a 2008 study at Loyola University in Chicago found that teenaged rats exposed to binge amounts of alcohol had a 15 percent greater decline in bone mass during adulthood compared to rats who had remained sober. A later study by the same scientist found that the bone-making genes of those binge-drinking rats had been disrupted, perhaps permanently. So human teenagers are taking huge chances both with their brain functions and the risk of developing osteoporosis as they age.
The trouble is: how many teenagers will listen to their parents if they start expounding on the dangers of drinking? In this case, actions really do speak louder than words. Modifying your own behavior to show your kids that we do not drink to excess is an essential step. We also need to take responsibility for their supervision, staying aware of where they are and what they are doing while they live at home. Finally, don’t provide them with alcohol; limit their ability to obtain it in your house. That will significantly reduce the possibility of drinking since not too many young teens have the identification they need to get it from a store.
1 Bremner, Pamela et al. “Young People, Alcohol and Influences.” Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 17 June 2011. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 20 July 2011. <http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/young-people-alcohol-and-influences>.