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Teens and alcohol study: After a few drinks, parenting style kicks in

Parents may be surprised, even disappointed, to find out they don't influence whether their teen tries alcohol.

But now for some good news: Parenting style strongly and directly affects teens when it comes to heavy drinking defined as having five or more drinks in a row according to a new Brigham Young University study.

The researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 about their drinking habits and their relationship with their parents. Specifically, they examined parents' levels of accountability knowing where they spend their time and with whom and the warmth they share with their kids. Here's what they found:

  • The teens least prone to heavy drinking had parents who scored high on both accountability and warmth.
  • So-called "indulgent" parents, those low on accountability and high on warmth, nearly tripled the risk of their teen participating in heavy drinking.
  • "Strict" parents high on accountability and low on warmth more than doubled their teen's risk of heavy drinking.

Prior research on parenting style and teen drinking was a mixed bag, showing modest influence at best. Unlike previous research, this study distinguished between any alcohol consumption and heavy drinking.

"While parents didn't have much of an effect on whether their teens tried alcohol, they can have a significant impact on the more dangerous type of drinking," said Stephen Bahr, a professor in BYU's College of Family, Home and Social Sciences.

Bahr, along with co-author John Hoffmann, will publish the study in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The statistical analysis also showed that religious teens were significantly less likely to drink at all. That mirrors findings from this 2008 study Bahr and Hoffmann conducted on teen religiosity and marijuana use.

Not surprisingly, a teen's peers play an important role on whether a teen consumes any alcohol. The BYU researchers note that teens in this new study were more likely to have non-drinking friends if their parents scored high on warmth and accountability.

"The adolescent period is kind of a transitional period and parents sometimes have a hard time navigating that," Bahr said. "Although peers are very important, it's not true that parents have no influence."

For parents, the takeaway is this:

"Realize you need to have both accountability and support in your relationship with your adolescent," Hoffmann said. "Make sure that it's not just about controlling their behavior you need to combine knowing how they spend their time away from home with a warm, loving relationship."


Contact: Joe Hadfield
Brigham Young University

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