You may have heard of mums and dads giving their teenagers alcohol as a parenting tactic – rationales include 1) it’s safer to buy it, serve it and monitor it in a controlled environment than to have them sneak off with their friends to scull goon in some sketchy parking lot, and 2) it normalises alcohol so they won’t see it as something taboo and therefore something they must ingest in mass amounts as quickly as possible.
Some say their own parents did this for them while growing up, and they’re glad. “It actually gave me a sense of responsibility to take the trust my folks had in me and not act like a total dipshit,” wrote one redditor in a thread on the topic. Another added, “I knew my tolerance when I got to college. I met some kids who … didn’t.”
But a new study published in The Lancet suggests that, anecdotes aside, this is not an effective strategy for protecting teenagers from the risks of alcohol abuse. In fact, it seems to be associated with some dangerous outcomes.
Australian researchers followed 1927 teens for six years, and found that those whose parents supplied them with alcohol one year were twice as likely to find alcohol from other sources the following year. Also, by the end of the study, 81 per cent of the teenagers who received alcohol from their parents and other sources reported binge drinking (defined as four or more standard drinks in a single occasion), compared with 62 per cent of teens who received alcohol from non-parent sources only. And teens who received alcohol from their parents were more likely to have symptoms of alcohol use disorder than those who received no alcohol from any source.
There are limitations to the study – it’s observational, and teens from low socioeconomic status backgrounds were underrepresented. And, perhaps more importantly, the research does not indicate the amount of alcohol supplied by parents, or the context in which it is given. (Was it a flute of champagne to celebrate Mum’s promotion or was it five Jägerbombs? Were the teens given a talk about safe drinking habits or just a key to the liquor cabinet?)
However, the results do align with previous research on parents who let their kids take sips of alcoholic drinks – studies suggest that practice is related to binge drinking, drug use and other problem behaviours.
The big recommendation from researchers: Don’t give your kids alcohol before they’re legally allowed to drink. All they will gain is, well, more alcohol. There’s no scientific evidence that it will teach them how to drink responsibly, and it may put them at risk.