As reported in last month’s edition, a significant report from UK think Tank DEMOS reaffirms parents as having the most influence on both teenage and adulthood relationships with alcohol in their off spring.
The report states ‘This research offers a largely positive story for parents: that their efforts do make a long-term, significant difference to the relationship their children will have with alcohol – especially in adolescence when peer pressure is often at its most acute. Indeed, serious excessive alcohol consumption in the UK is still the preserve of the few not the many, which illustrates how well parents are already doing... Our findings also fit broader theories from neuroscience. There are two important periods of vulnerability and rapid change in brain development – the early years (0–5) and the teenage years. During both these periods good parenting is crucial to optimal development. In the early years strong warmth is important for cognitive and emotional functions; whereas in the teenage years young people’s brains have been shown to be far less mature than was once thought, with deficiencies in how risk is assessed and long-term consequences considered. Our findings fit this picture – with warmth and attachment important in the early years and supportive discipline in the teenage years’.
The study analysed two separate data sets of longitudinal data – the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) and the Birth Cohort Study (BCS). The ALSPAC contains data on 14,062 babies born in Avon, England between April 1991 and December 1992 (4,000 children used on this study). The BCS began in 1970 when data were collected for 17,694 babies born one week of the year from all across the UK. The study compared how their parents raised them against the child’s drinking habits when they become an adolescent (age 16) and an adult (age 34).
Style of parenting at age 10
The report found that strong parental warmth to the child yields a large, significant reduction in the likelihood of the child drinking excessively at 16. Interestingly, discipline did not appear to have an effect. The authors found that disengaged parenting at age 10 makes the child twice as likely to drink excessively at age 34, compared with a child whohas ‘tough love’ parents. At this age, the likelihood of the child becoming an excessive drinker at 34 increases by 30% for every decrease in parental style within the typologies. Interestingly, the model shows that parenting at age 10 makes little difference to whether or not the child will drink excessively at age 16: the effect appears to be deferred until they reach adulthood.
Style of parenting at age 16
Disengaged parenting at age 16 makes the child over eight times more likely to drink excessively at that age. At age 16, parenting style was both the strongest and the only statistically significant predictor of whether the child will drink excessively at 16 in the study models. The risk of drinking excessively at age 16 is 836% higher if a child’s parents are ‘disengaged’, compared with showing ‘tough love’, at that age. Disengaged parenting at age 16 also increase the risk of drinking excessively at 34 by 240% versus children with ‘tough love’ parents at age 16.2%. This finding held, even when controlling for drinking levels at 16, and parental style at age 10.
High levels of warmth until the age of 10 and strict discipline (of either the authoritarian or tough love kind) at the age of 16 are the best parenting approaches to reduce the likelihood a child will drink excessively in adolescence and adulthood.
Interestingly, the research shows that different aspects of parenting style are important at different stages of the child’s life. At ages 21 months to 5 years, and age 10, parenting warmth is a strong and significant safeguard against excessive drinking at age 34, but discipline is not. However, by the age of 16, it is discipline not warmth that is having the strongest effect on whether the child will drink excessively at age 16 and at age 34.
Children with parents who are separated or divorced at age 21 months to 5 years are more likely to have problematic drinking behaviours when they reach 16 than children with both parents married or cohabiting.
Male versus female traits
Males are more likely to have concerning alcohol- related behaviours, such as being sick or extremely drunk, at age 16 than females, but not necessarily higher overall levels of consumption. Females were found to have a 70% less risk of drinking excessively at age 34 than males.
Having children at the age of 34 reduces the risk of drinking excessively by 22%.
The report fails to find why exactly parenting appears to be significant for excessive alcohol consumption, but find convincing evidence for parenting that combines discipline and warmth - finding it fosters self-control, autonomy, self-confidence and social responsibility in children. These qualities are associated with many positive outcomes, including responsible drinking. Moreover, the fact that parenting style at age 10 does not affect drinking at 16 but does at 34 implies that good parenting, among other things,builds durable personal qualities that take time to be realised.
The authors state that ’We know that information provision on alcohol and its dangers is not enough on its own to change drinking behaviour..However, if the parents are involved, and the intervention deals with general life skills such as sociability, autonomy, application and so on, school-based programmes can be effective. The forthcoming alcohol strategy should ensure resources for school based activities are targeted on these types of programmes’.
The report concludes: The results show that, even when accounting for income, education, ethnicity, gender, parents’ drinking and more, parenting style is enormously important. Overall, if a set of parents spends a lot of time with the child, while also enforcing rules and discipline, the child is less likely to drink excessively as an adolescent and as an adult, compared with children whose parents did not.