Should Parents Let Kids Drink at Home? New Data Show Many Do

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Among American teens aged 12 to 14 who report drinking alcohol, nearly 30% were given the booze by their parents or other adult relatives, according to new statistics released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The study found that 709,000 American 12-to-14-year-olds have had at least one alcoholic drink in the last month — almost 6% of the population that age. The statistics were taken from the National Household Surveys on Drug Use and Health, conducted from 2006 to 2009, and involve responses from 44,000 young teens.

In an accompanying statement, SAMHSA administrator Pamela Hyde said, “People who begin drinking alcohol before the age of 15 are six times more likely than those who start at age 21 and older to develop alcohol problems. Parents and other adults need to be aware that providing alcohol to children can expose them to an increased risk for alcohol abuse and set them on a path with increased potential for addiction.”

But does providing teens with booze at home automatically increase their risk of alcoholism? And is the increased risk of alcoholism in young drinkers due solely to early exposure to alcohol? (More on How to Get the Best Drug Treatment for Teens)

The studies that connect alcoholism to early drinking are correlational: they can’t prove that early drinking in itself causes later alcoholism. There are also some important differences between people who start drinking early and those who start later: for example, those who drink early are more likely to have alcoholic parents, to be impulsive or poorly supervised, or to suffer from abuse, neglect or other traumatic experiences. All of these factors — which often appear together — independently increase risk for alcoholism.

Further, some research suggests that teens whose parents drink with them actually have fewer alcohol problems than other kids. That doesn’t mean providing alcohol for teen parties, which is associated with an increased risk of binge drinking. When parents actually drink with their teens at dinner or in a religious context, however, it is associated with lower levels of alcohol problems. The new survey data did not determine the context of the teen respondents’ drinking. (More on Should You Drink with Your Kids?)

In a 2004 study that examined data from more than 6,000 people across the country, teens who drank with their parents were about half as likely to have consumed alcohol in the previous month and about one-third less likely to have binge drank in the previous two weeks, compared with teens who drank without parental approval.

Further, research from Europe has found consistently that countries where alcohol is seen as a food and consumed in a family context, rather than in bars — like France, Spain and Italy — tend to have fewer problems with teen binging and adult alcoholism than countries like the U.K. and Ireland where alcohol is viewed as an intoxicant and either glorified or demonized. Unfortunately, however, the binge drinking culture of Northern Europe has been making inroads into the more moderate South, in recent years. (More on How to Tell if Your Drinking Is Really a Problem)

The U.S. — as the SAMHSA statement clearly implies — tends to have a drinking culture more like that of Northern Europe. At best, American public health authorities view alcohol as an ineradicable evil, which should be feared for its addictive properties. The research suggests, however, that demystifying alcohol may be better for us than demonizing it.