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Does allowing teens to drink at home cause problems later?

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Does allowing teenage kids to drink at home teach them to drink responsibly, or could it send a message that contributes to problems later on? Recent research suggests both might be true, depending in part on family structure.

The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, drew on data from 772 children ages 12-17 and their parents. Researchers found that while being allowed to drink at home did not in itself predict levels of alcohol use over time, family structure played a significant role in moderating the relationship. Teens living with both biological parents who were allowed to drink at home had the lowest levels of alcohol use and problems later on, while teens living with a single parent or in a blended family (i.e., one biological parent and one stepparent) who were allowed to drink at home showed the highest levels of alcohol use and abuse. Teens who weren’t allowed to drink at home generally fell in between, regardless of family structure.

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Previous findings on the links between drinking at home and overall alcohol use or problems have been mixed. Some studies have found heavier alcohol use or higher rates of subsequent problem drinking among kids allowed to drink at home, while others have found lower overall use. Yet many of these studies didn’t look at interactions between drinking at home and family-related variables.

In the current study, researchers asked parents whether they allowed their child to drink at home. Along with family structure, they collected information on family history of alcohol use, consistent rule setting and enforcement by parents, and kids’ alcohol use and drinking-related problems. Participants were first interviewed in 1989, and were re-interviewed up to four times over the next 15 years. Of those variables, the only factor that changed the relationship between drinking at home and later alcohol use was family structure.

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Family structure may be important because of how it relates to parental monitoring and communication, said lead author Ash Levitt, senior research scientist at the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions.

“An intact family structure with two parents might serve as a proxy for factors like better communication with both parents and clearer expectations of behavior — what’s allowed and what’s not,” he said. “When there are two parents, it’s also easier to set rules and monitor how they’re being followed.”

Single-parent and blended families were grouped together in the study because preliminary analyses showed no difference in alcohol-related outcomes between the two, he explained.

Levitt emphasized that the findings are not meant to encourage parents to start letting their teens drink at home. But they may have implications for prevention and treatment.

Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said it’s important to consider what parents mean when they say they allow their kids to drink at home, since that could play a significant role in later outcomes. In the study, this was assessed through a yes-or-no question.

“For some, it might be ‘yes, I let my kid have a few sips or a glass of wine on special occasions,’ while for others, it could be, ‘I know drinking at home is safer, so I let them drink in the basement when their friends are over,’ ” said Levy, who wasn’t involved in the study.

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Supervision is likely more critical than family structure, she added. “It’s very likely that parents who carefully monitor their teen’s use of alcohol — perhaps letting them have a few sips or one drink, under their direct supervision — might take some of the curiosity out of drinking,” she said. “But I would caution people that this study doesn’t say in any way it’s safe to allow unsupervised drinking at home.”


Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.