When it comes to underage drinking, most parents are fooling themselves about quite a few things. Our lab at Loyola Marymount University studies this stuff and we’ve identified 7 false beliefs that are shared by the vast majority of parents. It’s highly likely that you believe at least a couple of these things.
So, why is this a big deal?
Here’s some scary news. Our research shows that these false beliefs influence teen drinking. Literally, the more of these 7 things you believe, the more your teen will drink. The less of these things you believe, the less your teen will drink. We have proven this scientifically.
In fact, last year we gave a group of parents a 60-minute presentation focused on correcting false beliefs about underage drinking. Then we followed up with their teenage kids for four months. The results, published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, were shocking.
Compared to a second group of teens whose parents didn’t get our presentation, the ones who did were 64% less likely to engage in binge drinking and 55% more likely to decide not to drink at all.
Yes, correcting parents’ beliefs changed their teenagers’ behavior.
I’m not trying to be mean here.
The majority of parents are at least partially guilty of buying into these. The point of this article isn’t to make you feel bad. I’m writing about this stuff because our research shows that teaching parents about these false beliefs can make a real positive difference in teen’s lives.
I am going to discuss all of these beliefs in extreme detail. I will link to studies, many coming out of our lab here at LMU, that corroborate everything I say. And more importantly, I’ll tell you what this all means and what you should do about it.
1. If I forbid my teen from drinking in high school, he’ll go crazy when he gets to college.
This is a very prevalent myth among American parents. I can’t tell you how often someone brings this up when I’m giving a talk about underage drinking. The myth almost always involves a reference to Europe. Something along the lines of: “Look at Europe. Teens start drinking earlier there and they don’t have problems with college drinking like we do.”
I’m going to spend a bit of time completely dismantling this myth piece by piece because it is extremely prevalent and is problematic on a number of levels.
First off, let’s just set the record straight about Europe.
Underage drinking among college students in the United Kingdom is actually higher than it is here in America, not lower. For instance, a study of UK college students published in The Lancet found that just 11% of UK students are non-drinkers. Compare that with US college students. According to the most recent numbers from the Monitoring the Future study, 35% of US college students are non-drinkers.
Yes, you read that correctly.
College students here are actually over three times more likely to choose not to drink. UK teens also binge drink more and drink to intoxication more than US teens.
So much for things being better in Europe…
Here’s the deal. There are some countries in Europe where teens drink more responsibly than they do in the US (think Spain) and there are others where teens drink less responsibly (ahem, UK). The reason teens in countries like Spain drink more responsibly is not because they start drinking earlier, it has to do with a variety of factors including cultural norms, family values, and social traditions.
So What’s the bottom line on this myth?
This is not a mystery, folks.
Researchers have literally conducted dozens of studies looking at how age of alcohol initiation influences underage drinking across the lifespan.
I’m going to make this really easy for you.
Not a single study has ever found a benefit for early initiation.
The evidence is conclusive. The later your teen starts drinking the better off he or she will be in the long run. For instance, a recent study by our lab found that teens who start drinking before age 15 are more likely to use other drugs and to engage in frequent binge drinking when they get to college.
Have I beat this into the ground enough? Your teen is not going to go crazy in college because you didn’t let them drink during high school. In fact, studies show that if you are strict about underage drinking during the teen years, your son or daughter will actually drink less in college.
2. My teen drinks less than most teens–or not at all.
We have noticed something interesting in our research. When we ask parents to estimate how much the typical teen drinks and then to estimate how much their own teen drinks there is a very strong trend. It almost always goes in the same direction: parents think their own teen drinks less than average.
Parents seem to think they are living in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional town in which “all of the children are above average.”
When we poll parents about their teenagers’ drinking, about 70% think their teen doesn’t drink at all. But when we ask students about their own drinking, only 30-35% say they are non-drinkers. Similarly, one study of high school students found that, of all the students who reported drinking, less than a third of their parents knew they were drinking.
In our own research, even parents who know their teen drinks almost always significantly underestimate the amount of alcohol their teen is actually consuming.
When I work with parents and I tell them about these numbers here’s how they react: “Wow, parents are so naive. Thankfully, I know my daughter doesn’t drink. We have a great relationship and talk about this stuff all the time. But clearly all of those other parents are fooling themselves!”
Do you see what is happening? Parents are quick to admit that other parents are wrong about how much their teens drink. But it is very difficult to admit that you may be wrong about what your own child is doing.
I get it. Nobody wants to think their kid is lying to them.
But I have to urge you to set aside your ego for just a minute and consider this seriously. How much do you think your teen drinks? Whatever number just came into your head, you can be almost 100% sure that the reality is not less than this number. It is almost unheard of for a parent to overestimate their teen’s alcohol use. In fact, statistically, the chances are very good your number is too low.
3. I talk to my teen about underage drinking more than other parents do.
Take a guess. What percentage of other parents do you think have spoken with their teen about underage drinking during the previous three months?
Most parents, when asked this question, guess about 50%. However, the actual number is 91%. In fact, 67% of parents report that they have spoken to their teen about drinking during the past month!
So, why is this a big deal?
Our research shows very clearly that what we think other people are doing is one of the strongest influences on our own behavior. For example, our colleague, Clayton Neighbors, did a study looking to find out what has the biggest impact on how much teenagers drink. He looked at every possible variable he could think of to see which one had the largest effect size.
He found that the strongest influence on how much teens drink is how much they think other teens drink.
Recent studies from our own lab show that parents are no different. Like teens, parents are strongly influenced by what they think other parents are doing. So if you underestimate how often other parents are talking to their teens about alcohol, this will influence you to talk to your own teen less.
When you learn that most parents have conversations about drinking every month, hopefully you will feel like you have permission to start talking about it more often with your own teen.
In fact, our research shows that when we correct this false belief, parents become highly motivated to talk to their own teens about underage drinking more often.
4. Other parents are more laid back about underage drinking than I am.
Has your teen ever said something like: “Mom, why can’t you be more cool about this like other people’s parents?” or, “But everyone else’s parents let them stay out till 1am. Why do I have to come home at 11?”
Lines like this can actually be pretty effective because they prey on a common false parent belief. Most parents tend to think that other parents are more laid back than themselves. As we saw in the previous section of this article, our perceptions about other people influence us, whether we like it or not.
In one study conducted at our lab, we found that parents significantly overestimate how approving other parents are and that these misperceptions strongly influence parents’ own attitudes.
Believe it or not, our research shows that teens’ attitudes are heavily influenced by their parents’ attitudes. So when a parent changes their attitude about something this leads to a change in the teen’s behavior.
But can you really just abruptly change your attitude?
When I work with parents on correcting this false belief, it brings up a common question. If you have not taken a strong stand on underage drinking up until now or if you have not been as strict about it as you could be, doesn’t it seem weird to just change your attitude all of a sudden?
I completely understand this question. Parents want to feel like they are being consistent. And changing your attitude seems inconsistent.
But here’s the deal: no study has ever found a negative effect of changing to a less approving attitude about underage drinking. Even heavy-drinking students tend to significantly reduce their alcohol use after a parent adopts a less approving attitude.
The consistency thing is just not an important issue. In fact, it would be inconsistent not to change your attitude when you receive new information. After reading this article you now have new information about the dangers of underage drinking. It only makes sense to change you attitude.
Other parents are not more laid back than you.
In fact, we have conducted a number of surveys where we ask parents how often they think it is OK for their teen to drink alcohol. The most common response by far is: never.
The “cool” parents who drink with their teens and let their teens have parties in the house are largely a myth. Sure, there are a few of them. But statistically they are a very small minority.
To the average parent underage drinking is simply not acceptable.
5. It’s best to let teens do a bit of supervised drinking at home so they can learn their limits.
Some of the parents I work with will admit that early alcohol initiation is bad but will still insist there is a benefit to letting teens do some supervised drinking in the home.
The reasoning here usually goes something like this: “Hey, teens are going to drink anyway with their friends. So not allowing them to drink with you at home isn’t really preventing them from starting. Actually, you’re just missing out on a valuable opportunity to teach responsible drinking.”
Listen, one reason these myths are so prevalent is because they seem perfectly logical. On the surface, this reasoning makes a certain amount of sense. Teens do need to learn their limits.
Here’s the problem: drinking (and substance use in general) is a highly context-dependent activity. This is just a fancy way of saying that the environment plays a huge role in determining how much we will drink in any situation. Make sense? Any limits your teen learns with you in your living room don’t apply when he or she is with a group of friends or at a house party.
This goes back to the idea of social norms. I mentioned earlier that norms are the absolute strongest influence on teen drinking. Norms are expectations about how we are “supposed” to act in various situations. The norms in your living room are very different than the norms and pressures they will experience during a game of beer pong with some opposite-sex friends.
The skills simply do not transfer.
But don’t take my word for it. Consider the definitive study that followed over 1900 teens in two different states for two years and found that adult-supervised alcohol use among teens resulted in “higher levels of harmful alcohol consequences.” This is not a matter scientists debate about. It is a fact.
I’m going to be honest with you. The science of parent influence is a relatively young science. For many years researchers simply thought that parents don’t matter much.
There are not all that many findings in this field that are absolutely rock solid.
But here’s one of the few things that we do know for sure. This is probably the most robust finding in this entire field. It has been replicated over and over and over again.
The best attitude parents can take with regard to their teen’s underage drinking is a no tolerance policy. Teens whose parents communicate to them that they do not approve of any alcohol use whatsoever are the ones who have the best results by far later in life.
Period. End of story.
This doesn’t mean you have to be particularly harsh, strict, or authoritarian. In fact, we’ll learn in the next section that it’s important to maintain open communication about underage drinking. A no tolerance policy simply refers to your attitude. It means telling your teen that drinking is not OK.
6. If I’m strict with my teen about drinking then she’ll feel like she can’t talk to me when there’s an issue.
Will your teen simply shut down and stop opening up to you about her alcohol use if you adopt a less approving attitude toward underage drinking?
There are two parts to this answer. First, you have to understand that researchers have come to see attitudes and openness as two separate constructs. So a parent can have a strict attitude about underage drinking while still maintaining an open channel of communication. Changing your attitude doesn’t change the openness of the parent-teen relationship in a significant way.
In one classic study, researchers surveyed 133 teens and their parents. They found that parents’ ratings of how open family communication was correlated very strongly with the teens’ ratings. So if you think your communication is not very open, that is probably not a false belief.
The researchers also discovered that families with more open communication ended up talking about drinking more often and that these more frequent talks resulted in safer drinking. But the researchers did not report a relationship between parent attitudes and communication frequency.
Now here’s the second part of the answer.
As a parent, it is not your job to be the person your teen can talk to about everything. Parenting experts agree that a parent’s role is not to be their teen’s best friend, but to provide guidance and instill values. It’s healthy for your teen to have a zone of privacy and have things that they don’t share with you.
This can be hard for parents to accept.
For instance, as Ashley Merryman points out in her phenomenal book NurtureShock, 78% of parents in a recent Harris poll reported being sure their teen can talk to them about anything. But Oberlin researcher Nancy Darling surveyed thousands of teens and found that 96% report lying to their parents.
So parents are are mistaken about how much their teens are sharing.
The idea here is that you want to create an open environment where your teen feels like she can talk to you about drinking and you will listen non-judgmentally. This does not mean your teen should tell you everything. Just that he or she knows it is OK to talk to you about the important stuff.
7. My teen knows what my attitude is.
This is something that parents often take for granted. Of course your teen knows what your attitude is with respect to underage drinking. Right? I mean, you talk about it pretty regularly.
Well, in our lab, we’ve done a number of studies involving something called “dyadic data analysis”. This means we survey both the parents and the teens about the same thing and then we compare their responses. And when we do this we find something very interesting.
The numbers don’t match up.
For instance, in one study we asked parents what their attitude about underage drinking is. Then we asked the teens what their parents’ attitude is. And the answers we got were significantly different.
Want to take a guess which direction the discrepancy went?
Yep. You guessed it. The teens thought their parents were much more approving of underage drinking than the parents said they were. And the most important part of the study was that only one of these two numbers had a strong effect on teens’ alcohol use: what they thought their parents’ attitude was.
So you probably think you are being very clear about your attitude. But chances are very good that if we asked your teen about your attitude we would get a very different answer.
You can never be too clear with you teen about underage drinking.
How to actually use this information:
Before I let you go, there’s something really important you need to know. Our research shows that simply telling parents their beliefs are wrong is not enough to make a big change in teen behavior. In fact, we did one study where we gave parents an online program that corrected a number of these false parent beliefs about underage drinking and it had no measurable impact on teen alcohol use.
Why the heck not?
What we’ve found is that fixing these false beliefs accomplishes two main things. First, it helps parents realize they can and should adopt a strong no tolerance policy with regard to underage drinking. Second, it gets parents motivated to talk to their teens more often about alcohol.
But knowing what to do and being motivated are not enough. Parents also need to learn how to do it. Consider the study I told you about at the start of this article, the one where we give parents a 60-minute presentation that made a huge impact on underage drinking. In the first half of the presentation we focused on correcting parents’ false beliefs. During the second half we taught them strategies for communicating effectively with teens about alcohol use.
So now that you have read this article and you know all about these false parent beliefs, it is time to learn some of the communication skills that are scientifically proven to work. We have lots of free resources on the site to help you do just that! Sign up for the email list to get instant access to some great stuff.