Parents who drink too much, too often, may be influencing their teens to do the same, a new study finds.
“Adolescents whose parents binge drink had a four times greater chance of drinking alcohol themselves compared to adolescents whose parents did not binge drink, and so this study provides more evidence that binge drinking is not only harmful to the person drinking alcohol but also to others around them,” said senior study author Marissa Esser, the lead of the alcohol program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Underage drinking is a dangerous problem. “It’s associated with social problems issues in school, memory problems, and these teens are more likely to use other substances,” Esser added.
Excessive alcohol use is associated with 140,000 deaths per year in the United States, and that includes about 4,000 deaths among people under the age of 21, she noted.
Part of the problem is that alcohol is readily available and inexpensive, Esser said. The pandemic changed laws in many U.S. states, making liquor easier to get, she explained.
Many of the same strategies used to fight tobacco addiction can and should be used to fight alcohol addiction, Esser said.
These include raising prices and taxes and limiting the availability of liquor.
“Parents can reduce the availability of alcohol and how accessible it is within their homes, and they should not be providing alcohol to people under the age of 21,” Esser said. “Parents can also support policies in their communities to reduce the availability of alcohol, because by making it less available, it reduces the risk of excessive drinking, including underage drinking, and these policies can also help improve overall well-being.”
For the study, Esser and her CDC colleagues analyzed responses from 740 U.S. parents and their children who participated in the 2020 SummerStyles and YouthStyles surveys and answered questions about alcohol use in the past 30 days.
In all, 6.6% of teens drank alcohol, with no significant differences in income or social status.
They also found that more than half of parents reported alcohol use, more than a quarter reported drinking frequently, more than a third reported binge drinking and 1 in 5 held permissive attitudes toward binge drinking.
The findings were published online Sept. 14 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“This study is further evidence of the critical role parents play in young people’s substance use,” said Robyn Oster, a senior research associate at the Partnership to End Addiction. “It adds additional support to a large body of research showing that parental substance use is strongly associated with children’s substance use.
“These findings also highlight the fact that far too many adolescents are growing up in homes where frequent alcohol use is the norm,” Oster added.
The study shows the importance of efforts to prevent underage drinking and also the benefits of prevention and treatment programs to reduce excessive drinking among adults, she said.
“Adolescents face particular risk because their brains are still developing, and alcohol or other substance use can interfere with this development,” Oster explained. “Drinking alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment and coordination, which can increase the likelihood of making poor decisions and unhealthy choices.”
Parents have the largest influence over their children’s decisions and actions when it comes to substance use, Oster said.
“Parents should set a healthy example for their children. If they drink, it is important to model responsible drinking behavior and avoid suggesting that alcohol is needed to relax, have fun or reduce stress,” she said.
Parents can model healthy ways of coping and having fun, Oster said. “Parents can also model the importance of seeking help if it is needed for alcohol-related problems. Parents can monitor their children and their children’s access to alcohol, including by keeping alcohol in the home locked up, out of sight, and out of reach and supervising social gatherings,” she said.
They should also have frequent and honest conversations about drinking, set clear expectations and follow through on previously agreed-upon consequences if the child violates those expectations. “If parents discover their child is drinking, they should take a health, not a punitive approach, and get help,” Oster said.
Parents have an important role in protecting their children from substance use, but the responsibility should not lie solely with them, she noted.
“School professionals and health care providers should also help foster healthy development and reduce risk for substance use,” Oster said. “Policymakers should create environments that protect youth from substances by restricting youth-appealing marketing of alcohol products known to appeal to young people, such as flavored juices and seltzers, and the marketing of alcohol in venues frequented by young people, and by supporting social determinants of health that can reduce risk and promote healthy child development.”
For more on teens and alcohol, see the U.S. National Institute in Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
SOURCES: Marissa Esser, PhD, lead, alcohol program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Robyn Oster, senior research associate, Partnership to End Addiction; Journal of Adolescent Health, Sept. 14, 2023, online
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