Parents who supply sips of alcohol in early adolescence: A prospective study of risk factors

April 2016
Wadolowski, M., Hutchinson, D., Bruno, R., Aiken, A., Najman, J. M., Kypri, K., Slade, T., McBride, N., & Mattick, R. P. (2016). Parents who supply sips of alcohol in early adolescence: a prospective study of risk factors. Pediatrics, 137, (3), e20152611. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2015-2611.

Parents are a major supplier of alcohol to adolescents, often initiating use with sips. Despite harms of adolescent alcohol use, research has not addressed the antecedents of such parental supply.

The Australian Parental Supply of Alcohol Study is the largest study of its kind following 1,729 parent-child pairs over a four year period from year 7 investigating the long term trajectories of early teen drinking. Data from the study which forms the basis of lead author Dr Monika Wadolowski’s doctoral thesis (which has been presented at conferences but not published in the Pediatrics paper) found that the early parental supply of alcohol through school years 7 to 9 was the single biggest predictor of drinking in year 10 and more influential than family circumstances and issues; more influential than individual psychological risk factors and more influential than peers. Given the known harms and the confusion among parents the study published in Pediatrics specifically addresses the factors influencing parents’ decisions to supply alcohol to their children.

The authors provide the first analysis of the prospective associations between familial, parental, adolescent, and peer factors, and subsequent parental supply of sips 1 year later. One theory behind parental supply is that parents choose to give their children alcohol with the aim of protecting them from later use. The authors found however that after adjustment, parent perception of substance-using peers remained a significant predictor of subsequent parental supply. Few other parenting factors were associated with subsequent supply, apart from increased home alcohol access. Notably, even in unadjusted analyses, other parenting practices, such as monitoring, parenting consistency, relationship quality, and family conflict, were not associated with whether parents did or did not supply alcohol a year later.

Implications: Parents may believe supply of a small quantity of alcohol will protect their child from unsupervised alcohol use with peers. It is also possible that parental perception of peer substance use may result in parents believing that this is a normative behavior for their child’s age group, and in turn that supply is also normative. Further research is required to understand the impacts of such supply, even in small quantities, on adolescent alcohol use trajectories.