Many parents permit their adolescent children to drink alcohol, believing this helps teach them responsible use and avoids the appeal of 'forbidden fruit'. In research studies, greater parental permissibility for alcohol has been linked to earlier and heavier drinking in adolescence. However, it is not clear whether parents allowing adolescents to drink is itself to blame, or if this kind of permissibility is simply a marker for other factors (relating to the family, parents or child) that increase the risk of problem alcohol use among adolescents. For example, parents' own heavy drinking, family sociodemographics, and adolescents' friends' use of alcohol can all affect the likelihood of alcohol misuse among adolescents, and each of these risk factors might also be underlying causes of parents allowing drinking.
In a new report published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Pennsylvania State University have used intergenerational data from a contemporary UK study to examine whether parents allowing adolescents to drink is itself associated with risky drinking in adolescence, beyond other such risk factors.
The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) has collected data from over eleven thousand parents and children from infancy through to 14 years, using regular interviews. Children were asked questions about their alcohol use when they were aged 11 and 14 years; the data showed that by age 14, half had drunk more than a few sips of alcohol, around 10% had drunk heavily, and 3% had drunk heavily at least 3 times in the past year. Seven percent had made a rapid transition to heavy drinking, defined as escalating to having at least five drinks at a time, within a year of having their first drink.
Parents of 14-year olds were asked if they permitted their child to use alcohol, with about 16% of parents indicating that they did allow this. Using a series of statistical analyses, the researchers found that these teenagers faced an elevated risk of heavy alcohol use at age 14, even after accounting for a large host of other risk factors measured earlier when children were age 11. Specifically, children who were permitted to drink alcohol had over twice the odds of engaging in heavy or frequent heavy drinking by age 14, and almost double the risk of a rapid transition to heavy drinking, than those whose parents did not permit alcohol use.
These findings do not support the idea that allowing children to drink alcohol inoculates them against alcohol misuse, and will help to target prevention and screening efforts to reduce underage drinking. However, the researchers note that because adolescent heavy drinking and parental permissiveness about alcohol were measured at the same point in the survey (at around age 14), the findings represent an association rather than cause and effect; further research will be needed to establish whether parental permissiveness leads to adolescent heavy drinking, or whether adolescent drinking over time leads parents to become more permissive.