The study followed nearly 2,000 children and their parents over four years from Year 7 onwards. It was prompted by widespread interest in the “European model” of introducing children to alcohol, said lead author Richard Mattick, a research fellow at the Australian National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.
There has been discussion that the European model, whereby parents offer their children sips of alcohol from a young age, can prevent later harmful drinking.
“There is a body of research indicating that the adolescent brain is still developing well into the early 20s and alcohol may interfere with optimum development,” Prof. Mattick said.
“But also we know that parents want to do the right thing by their children, and there has been anecdotal evidence that children introduced to alcohol by their parents, as is common in some European cultures, may be less likely to develop problems with alcohol.
“Unfortunately there are very few well-designed studies out there that can offer definitive advice to parents. Our study was designed to address this gap,” he said.
Mattick and colleagues from universities in Perth and Tasmania recruited 1,927 adolescents and recorded their consumption of whole drinks, if they consumed more than four drinks on any single occasion—which they defined as binge drinking—and the source of supply of alcohol.
Other factors associated with adolescent drinking, such as family alcohol use, family structure, conflict and individual personality traits, were also taken into account.
The most surprising finding concerned the quantity of alcohol consumed and the frequency of binge drinking by adolescents who got their alcohol from sources other than their parents.
As well as being three times less likely to binge, the adolescents given alcohol by their parents also typically drank less on any drinking occasion than those supplied by their peers or others.
The personality traits of the child also impacted on how influential parental supply was to future drinking patterns: children who showed personality traits such as aggression and truanting were likely to obtain alcohol, whether their parents supplied it or not.
As well and independent of parental supply, the study found that certain family and peer factors reduced the odds of drinking, such as parental monitoring, consistent parenting, being religious and peer disapproval of drinking and smoking. Children were more likely to drink and to binge drink when their peers drank and when they displayed behaviours such as aggression.
Prof. Mattick said the results painted a nuanced and complex picture for parents. “On the one hand parents who supply alcohol to their children may be relieved that they are significantly less likely to engage in harmful behaviour, such as binge drinking,” he said.
“However, given that children supplied alcohol by their parents were twice as likely to be drinking full serves a year later as their peers who were not given alcohol by their parents, the results suggest that parents who supply alcohol, even with the best intentions, are likely to accelerate their child’s drinking and be laying down the potential for future harms.
“There may be later harms that are not yet obvious, and we are aware that early initiation of drinking is strongly associated with later alcohol use problems in adulthood—delay is the best strategy,” Prof. Mattick added.
He also cautioned parents against assuming that because parental supply is likely to reduce binge drinking, they are protecting their children by supplying alcohol.
“Because of the effects of early alcohol consumption on the developing adolescent, and the risk of other unwanted outcomes, such as trauma, accident, fights and unwanted sexual activity, the message to parents should be to delay drinking as long as possible. They may also be giving a permissive message to children which may be setting them on a path to early drinking that might otherwise be avoided.
“However, if your children’s peers do not drink yet they have personality traits such as anxiety, worrying and negative thinking then you are likely to be setting them on a path to drinking and potential future harms.”