• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 04th December, 2014

How should parents talk to their children about the dangers of alcohol?

strong>If you agree with your mother that you won’t drink alcohol until you’re older, and often talk with her about alcohol, she would probably believe that you understand the dangers of drinking at a young age. But she might be wrong.New research from the Netherlands suggests that having a mother-child non-drinking agreement actually decreases children’s perception of the harm caused by alcohol. In a one-year follow up evaluation of ‘In Control: No Alcohol!’, a family-based program for primary school students in the Netherlands, families who completed the program talked more often about alcohol, and were more likely to have an agreement that the child would not drink until they reached a specific age. The program also achieved its main goals. Children who participated were more likely than comparison children to perceive drinking as harmful and less likely to say they intended to drink alcohol. So the researchers investigated how these effects came about. Were changes in parenting behaviors responsible? Surprisingly, making an agreement not to drink actually lowered children’s beliefs about the harms of alcohol. Frequency of conversations about alcohol also had an unexpected effect. Although boys who talked with their mother about alcohol more often reported an increased perception of harm of alcohol, this was not true for girls. The more often mothers and daughters talked about alcohol, the lower the girls’ perception of harm. Implementing a drinking prevention interventionThe research team piloted “In Control: No Alcohol!” with 213 Dutch families with 11-year-old children. The program aims to prevent alcohol use by children through improving mother-child alcohol-related communication. Families were recruited through primary schools, and randomly assigned to either the intervention or control group. Families assigned to the intervention group were mailed one magazine a month, for five months. The magazines included information about alcohol, as well as games and tasks for mothers and children to complete together. Families in the control group were mailed a brochure about parenting and alcohol at the start of the intervention. Previous research on universal drinking prevention programs for children has shown mixed effects of parenting practices. The authors suggest this is because past studies have not untangled the impact of specific parenting behaviors and gender. Their results demonstrate that the relationship between parent-child communication and children’s inclination to drink is more complicated than it initially appears. How to impact intention to drink?Children were asked to report how often they had talked to their mother about alcohol in the past 12 months, and to rate their intention to drink alcohol in the future. Children’s decreased intention to drink was predicted by the quality of their communication with their mothers, as well as their mothers’ alcohol-specific rules. However, participating in the program did not improve the quality of maternal communication with their children, or affect the likelihood that mothers would set alcohol-specific rules. However, the intervention markedly increased the likelihood that mothers would establish a non-drinking agreement with their children, especially with their daughters. And having a non-drinking agreement was, unexpectedly, associated with the children perceiving a lower harm of drinking. For further researchThese study’s conclusions would be stronger if the researchers were able to measure the impact of the program on levels of actual drinking, rather than children’s intentions. However, we can conclude that the quality and content of communication between parents and children can impact children’s beliefs and intentions about alcohol. If researchers can establish the different effects of specific parenting behaviors, it may be possible to target the behaviors that will make a difference to children’s consumption of alcohol. This could help improve the overall success of alcohol reduction interventions.The next step, then, is identifying the strategies that can help parents successfully talk about alcohol with their children, without unintentionally lowering the perceived harm of drinking. *********Reference:Vermeulen-Smit, E., Mares, S. H., Verdurmen, J. E., Van der Vorst, H., Schulten, I. G., Engels, R. C., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2013). Mediation and Moderation Effects of an In-Home Family Intervention: the “In control: No alcohol!” Pilot Study. Prevention Science, DOI 10.1007/s11121-013-0424-4.

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