Feb. 24, 2003 -- Yell at a kid, ground him, search his room -- but that's not the way to prevent teen drinking. What works, say experts, is developing a warm bond with your child, setting rules, monitoring activities, meeting friends and their parents -- and starting all this early on, before the teen years ever begin.
It's a big, big issue, since nationwide surveys show that 26% of 8th graders and 60% of all high school kids drink. What's considered binge drinking -- having five or more drinks on any one occasion -- ranges from 21% among 9th graders to as much as 42% among 12th graders, reports lead researcher Kenneth H. Beck, PhD, professor of health behavior at the University of Maryland in College Park.
His study appears in this March issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.
Parents play a critical role in keeping kids away from alcohol, Beck says. Joseph Califano, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, agrees.
"The surveys we've done, of teens and parents, show that parental engagement is critical," Califano says. "Parents have the greatest influence on kids. The more often kids have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to drink, smoke, use drugs. We've done focus groups of kids, and it's interesting -- as often as kids complain about curfews, they say, 'it does show my parents care about me.'"
In his study, Beck reports the survey results of 444 Washington-area teens between 12 and 17 years old. All the teens were asked whether parents or guardians monitored their activities, whether they drank alcohol, whether they went to parties and other activities that involved alcohol, if they had ever talked with their parents about alcohol -- and whether their parents' opinions about alcohol mattered to them.
When parents monitored the teen's whereabouts, they were less likely to put themselves in alcohol-drinking situations or even to experiment with alcohol. "They're less likely to go to parties and other places where kids were drinking," he tells WebMD.
"The authoritative parent makes high demands and holds high expectations, but shows a lot of warmth," Beck says. "That kind of monitoring and that kind of demandingness seemed to keep the child from getting into high-risk situations."
The authoritarian parent "puts out a lot of high demands without a lot of warmth. 'Do it this way, and if you don't you'll be in trouble.' That may work for some kids, but not most."
Kids need to hear this message: "It's because we care about you."
Monitoring kids' activities made a huge difference, he adds. "Children who had more monitoring were less likely to put themselves in a situation where there was drinking." However, that's not true with binge drinking, he says. "We think that monitoring works in the initial stages of experimentation, but not after that period is over."
It's true, some kids need more monitoring than others, Beck adds. "That will vary by family and within the family. My sister and I were very different. She needed much more monitoring, was much more likely to test the rules. Some children are more independent, and because of their peers more inclined to be at risk whereas with others that's not so much a concern."
Start early, he adds. "Well before drinking becomes an issue, well before the child gets a driver's license. Parents need to establish certain expectations -- that they need to be informed when the child will be leaving and arriving, where they are going, who they will be with. Age 16 is not the time to establish expectations. You have to lay the groundwork much earlier: 'You will not have carte blanche access to this car, you need to check in, and you need to be in by 11.'"
The mother's relationship with the child was crucial, Beck adds. Kids who were willing to talk to their mother about drinking were less likely to drink without their parents' knowledge. "When mom did most of the monitoring, but dad set the rules, kids respected that," he says. "When dad makes his opinion known, it's significant because it doesn't happen as often."
Meeting your child's friends -- and their parents -- also helps, says Beck. When children are young, that's easier -- PTA meetings, Little League, and scout groups help. "But once the child goes to middle school, they're interacting with other children whose parents you don't know. The problem is compounded in high school. Get to know the parents, make sure you're on the same wavelength."
Should you smell the kid's jacket for alcohol? Kiss them goodnight, so you can detect the smell of alcohol? Sneak into the room, rifle through drawers, fish under the bed?
Califano advocates simply "seeing your kids a lot during the day" instead. "You need to look in your kid's eyes. You can tell a lot from that."
Help kids with their homework, go to their games, have dinner with them as often as possible, take them to church, Califano adds. "Teens for whom religion is an important part of life, or who attend religious services once in a while, are much less likely drink, use drugs, smoke," he says. "Kids don't go to church unless their parents take them."
Also, understand that adolescence is a different experience for boys and girls. "Girls smoke, drink, use drugs for reasons that are different from boys. Parents need to be sensitive to that," says Califano.