As teenagers mature into their senior year of high school, many parents begin to feel more comfortable about letting them drink alcohol. But new research from brain scientists and parenting experts suggests loosening the reins on drinking may not be a good idea in the long run. And, researchers say, parents' approach to addressing teen drinking does influence a teen's behavior.
Brain researchers are finding that alcohol has a particularly toxic effect on the brain cells of adolescents. That's because their brain cells are still growing, says Susan Tapert, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
The regions of the brain important for judgment, critical thinking and memory do not fully mature until a person is in his or her mid-20s. Tapert found that alcohol can damage the normal growth and development of a teenager's brain cells in these regions.
"Adolescents who engage in binge drinking (that is, having five or more drinks on occasion for boys, or four or more drinks on occasion for females) tend to show some brain abnormalities in their brain's white matter. That's the fibers that connect different parts of our brains," she wrote in a recent study.
So if parents want to give a "no alcohol" message to their teens, what can they do? Alcohol researcher Caitlin Abar from Pennsylvania State University found that parents' efforts do play a role in shaping their teens' behavior. She studied how parents deal with their high school teenagers regarding alcohol use while still at home, and she then checked after the teens' first semester of college. Her study of 300 teenagers and their parents was published recently in the journal Addictive Behaviors.
"Parents who disapproved completely of underage alcohol use tended to have students who engaged in less drinking, less binge drinking, once in college," Abar says.
And conversely, a parent's permissiveness about teenage drinking is a significant risk factor for later binge drinking.
"The parents who are more accepting of teen drinking in high school were more likely to have children who engaged in risky drinking behaviors in college, compared to those children who had parents that were less accepting," Abar says. The researchers also asked the teens about their parents' drinking patterns and found that parents' own drinking behavior influenced a teen's later alcohol use.