Study: parenting style can rein in teen drinking

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It’s one of the epically frustrating truths of family life — and the plot point that starts a thousand teen movies: parents have very little say over whether or not their teen children decide to do stuff. Especially stuff that might hurt them, like drinking alcohol or playing dangerous ball games.

But a new study from Brigham Young University suggests that although kids make their own decisions about whether to drink, certain parenting styles may discourage them from really getting loaded.

Researchers John Hoffmann and Stephen Bahr surveyed about 5,000 kids between the ages of 12 and 19 about their drinking habits and about their relationship with their parents. They looked at two things in particular: Did the kids feel their parents’ affection? And did the kids feel that their parents were keeping track of where they were and who they were with?

Unsurprisingly, the most responsible drinking behavior occurred in teenagers who felt they were both loved and carefully monitored — these kids were less likely to drink heavily, which the researchers defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a row. Teens who had a warm relationship with their parents, but who felt their parents let them do whatever they liked (see Molly Ringwald’s parents in Sixteen Candles), had a nearly tripled risk of heavy drinking, compared with the first group. And kids who felt their parents were strict but not that affectionate (see Julia Stiles’ dad in 10 Things I Hate About You) were twice as likely as the first group to drink heavily.

“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 Bahr, a professor at BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, in a statement.

Bahr and Hoffmann’s study, which appears in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, notes that teenagers’ friends and religious beliefs also have an impact on their decisions about how much to drink. That’s backed up by another study out this week by the U.K.’s Department for Education, which finds that teens who attend schools with mostly white or non-religious students from middle-class homes are exposed to a “drinking culture” that makes them more likely to drink and to binge drink. Overall, the study found that 55% of teens had tried alcohol by age 14, and 85% had drunk alcohol by age 17.

Still, parents shouldn’t count themselves out. “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.” (The study didn’t factor in whether or not the kids had seen Animal House.)

“Realize you need to have both accountability and support in your relationship with your adolescent,” Hoffmann said, also in a statement. “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.” — By Belinda Luscombe

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