Lack of parental control key factor in heaviest underage drinking

Underage drinkers with the least amount of parental control drink the most.
Underage drinkers with the least amount of parental control drink the most.

Underage drinkers with the least amount of parental control and who are most secretive about their drinking, hit the bottle hardest.

That was the finding of a study into drinking habits during of 11 to 18-year-olds, which suggests that support for adolescent parenting might be more beneficial than alcohol awareness for parents.

A team of researchers from the University of Glasgow and Queen’s University Belfast analysed data from 4937 teenagers from the Belfast Youth Development Study, which had looked at adolescent substance use carried out between 2000 and 2011.

“The study demonstrates the association between parental monitoring and adolescent alcohol use,” said Dr Mark McCann, of the Medical Research Council/Chief Scientist Office Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow, who led the research.

“Considering the developmental and social differences with age, there was surprisingly little evidence for differences in younger or older adolescents. There is a general shift in the importance of family and peers from childhood to adolescence, but our results suggest the role of parents in determining alcohol behaviour is consistently important,”

Dr McCann said the study suggested that the determining factor was not so much the quality of the relationship between parent and child, but the level of control exercised by parents.

“Why that should be is a bit of a puzzle,” he said “However, we are hypothesising that while emotional support and closeness are important for ensuring mental wellbeing, when it comes to health behaviours like alcohol use, parental rules may have more of an influence over factors outside the home such as peer influences and social media.

“Young people today begin drinking in a very different risk environment - in terms of alcohol pricing, marketing, and products sold - compared to previous decades.”

The new drinking alcohol guidelines issued by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers warn about the increased risk of several diseases, including cancer, and all families needed to be more aware of the long-term influences on physical and mental health, and not just the risk of alcohol dependence, Dr McCann said.

He added: “Given that adolescence is often a critical period for the beginning of alcohol use, and that alcohol harms are not confined to children from so-called ‘problem’ families, support for adolescent parenting – rather than alcohol awareness for parents – may be a more beneficial target for public policy aimed at young people’s health behaviour.”

The paper, entitled ‘Assessing elements of a family approach to reduce adolescent drinking frequency: parent-adolescent relationship, knowledge management, and keeping secrets’, is published in the journal Addiction.