Prevent Binge Drinking: A Talk May Do the Trick

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 18, 2000 -- Parents often despair over having no influence on their college-bound teens' activities while they're away from home. But one researcher says that proactive communication between a parent and teenager before leaving the nest could prevent a very dangerous and prevalent behavior: binge drinking.

Last year, a survey by Harvard University reported that 44% of college students binge drink. Bingeing is defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row at least once in two weeks for men, and four drinks for women.

In the latest study, published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Idaho's Boise State University psychologist Rob Turrisi, PhD, and colleagues, add a few more factors to the equation.

Turissi says that students' beliefs about the positive or negative effects of drinking and communication with their mothers about drinking can influence whether or not they binge.

"Drinking and its consequences are under-researched. So we wanted to look at the moderators of behavior and their impact on the consequences," Turrisi tells WebMD. He and his colleagues surveyed almost 270 incoming university freshmen. They found that if the students believed that drinking enhanced their social behavior or lifestyle, they were more likely to use alcohol and have a tendency to binge drink.

"If you think that drinking adds to the fun, then you're at higher risk for the consequences of a hangover, regretted sex, blackouts, and maybe something more serious," says Turissi.

But if their mothers had talked with them about the effects of alcohol and the consequences of drinking, the teenagers were less likely to do so.

The researchers focused on the teenager's conversations with mom, Turrisi says, because other studies have shown that mothers tend to deal with such issues before problems arise. Fathers tend to be reactive, in other words be the after-the-fact disciplinarian.

While he says that this may not work in all families because of different circumstances and relationships, it's an important way for parents to have a long-term effect on their children's behavior. His team is now looking at the dynamics that make these alcohol discussions possible and how to encourage parents to open the lines of communication.

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Thomas Van Hoose, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Dallas, agrees that parents must be involved in their children's' behavior when it comes to drinking. In the case of college binge drinking, unfortunately, too often parents are unaware of the problem until after something bad happens, he tells WebMD.

College-age children become involved with bingeing for a variety of reasons, says Van Hoose, who is also a clinical facility member in psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He cites peer pressure, especially if the student is a member of an organization where drinking may be encouraged. In addition, alcohol is in general more readily available on and around campuses.

Some students may use it as a self-medication to get over the breakup of a relationship, poor grades, or other problems. Many of these teenagers and young adults also have low self-esteem, problems with their parents before going to college, or a drinking problem in high school.

"It's difficult to tell what has the most influence, environment or genes," Van Hoose says.

Mark Goldman, PhD, agrees that family plays a strong role -- along with personality type. "There are certain people who are at higher risk for binge drinking -- those with a family history for instance. Also thrill seekers, those who like a lot of action. These are the people who like roller coasters and become jet pilots. It's not definite that they will get involved, but it's more likely. Goldman is a psychology professor at the University of South Florida and chairman of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism subcommittee on teenage drinking.

Those with a severe drinking problem need to be evaluated and may be treated with psychotherapy or medication and/or may need to be in a substance abuse program.

"They will need a lot of support," Van Hoose says. "Their parents have to be very actively involved in the intervention, and the adolescent must be willing to engage in treatment."

Last month, the institute released a 492-page report on the dangers of alcohol for all ages. It advises that research has shown that schools, parents, peers, policy-makers, and business can effectively reduce underage drinking -- if the intervention begins before kids begin to use alcohol. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, says that research such as the Harvard survey shows the seriousness of the situation on college campuses.

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The most recent survey results, an update of previous ones done in 1993 and 1997, were compiled from responses by 14,000 students at almost 120 colleges. It found an increase in frequent binge drinking. However, it did note some good news. Abstinence from alcohol has also increased and 56% of the students either don't drink at all or don't binge.

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