In Mediterranean countries it may be à la mode to allow teenagers a glass of the local wine with a meal, but new research suggests Irish parents who allow their children a tipple on special occasions are more likely to turn them into problem drinkers.
A study by University College Cork (UCC) has found that a more liberal attitude to alcohol by parents, such as allowing them to drink at home during parties or celebrations, may increase overall levels of consumption — rather than encourage a healthier attitude towards alcohol, as intended.
The amount a father drinks can increase the likelihood of hazardous drinking by his children, the authors found, but a mother’s personal consumption does not have the same effect.
“Hazardous” drinking is defined by the researchers as “a pattern of alcohol consumption that increases the risk of harmful consequences for the user or others”. The study was based on responses by 360 students and their parents, all based in the Mallow and Kanturk areas of Co Cork.
The research began as a BT Young Scientist project, and an outline of the planned study won the 2015 contest for two of its authors, Ian O’Sullivan and Eimear Murphy, from Colaiste Treasa in Kanturk. Their winning entry was titled, Alcohol Consumption: Does the Apple Fall Far from the Tree?
With assistance from Dr Martin Davoren, a researcher in UCC’s department of epidemiology and public health, the students expanded their research into a wide-ranging study on alcohol consumption by teenagers, and how it was affected by parental attitudes and behaviour. The research was published last week in the BMC Public Health journal.
The fieldwork was carried out between 2014 and 2015 among children in their final two years of secondary school, with an average age of 17. About 55% of the teenage respondents were female, and more mothers than fathers completed the questionnaire. All eight schools in the Mallow and Kanturk areas were surveyed, to give a cross- section of society.
The results indicate it is “risky for parents to allow children to drink during early adolescence”. This risk can be exacerbated by a family history of alcohol problems. The authors also found a father’s heavy drinking was particularly “predictive of harmful alcohol use in their children”.
Of those parents that answered the study, over 90% would not allow their teenage children to get drunk. Despite this, almost one-fifth of parents said they would not be worried if their adolescent consumed four pints of alcohol in one session once a month.
A large number of parents (43%) agreed with permitting their adolescent to drink on special occasions and about 18% believed that it would be acceptable for another parent to provide alcohol to their teenage child under supervision.
When fathers’ attitudes toward alcohol were investigated further, it was found that if an adolescent were a hazardous drinker, their father was more likely to agree that it’s OK “for their adolescent to get drunk sometimes”. Mothers’ attitudes to drinking were more important than their own consumption.
Only 48% of mothers of hazardous drinking teenagers agreed that adolescents should not drink at all, compared with 63% of mothers with non-hazardous drinking teenagers. Mothers who felt it was acceptable for their child to drink on special occasions were more likely to have hazardous consuming teenagers (63%). They were also more likely to agree with introducing alcohol in the home, and not concerned if their adolescent “drank four pints once a month” (27%).
The study found that over one-third of the children surveyed were already drinking hazardously. Almost half of the parents surveyed, 47%, reported “hazardous” drinking in the previous month. Despite this eight out of 10 parents surveyed believed that their own alcohol consumption set a good example for their offspring.
The authors recommend that action plans aimed at combatting problem drinking among adolescents should also focus on both parents’ attitudes and their personal consumption of alcohol.