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msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/29/2011 8:37:51 AM ET 2011-04-29T12:37:51

As prom night approaches and parents begin to worry about what might happen during after hour parties, some might be tempted to try to teach their high schoolers to drink responsibly – by allowing them to consume alcohol under supervision.

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That approach, scientists now say, is dead wrong.

A new study shows that teens who drink with an adult supervising are more likely to develop problems with alcohol than kids who aren’t allowed to touch the stuff till they hit age 21.

“The study makes it clear that you shouldn’t be drinking with your kids,” said Barbara J. McMorris, lead author and a senior research associate at the School of Nursing at the University of Minnesota.

An American Medical Association study reported in 2005 that 25 percent of teens acknowledged they had been at a party where underage drinking was occurring in the presence of a parent. Those are the parents McMorris and her colleagues are hoping the study will reach and teach.

For the new study, she and her colleagues rounded up 1,945 seventh graders and then tracked them for three years. Half of the teens were from Victoria, Australia, the other half from Washington State.

Each year the kids were given questionnaires that asked about their experiences with alcohol and about their relationships with their parents. The teens were asked how often they’d consumed more than a few sips of any alcoholic beverage each time they were surveyed.

When they hit the eighth grade, the teens were asked how many times in the past year they’d consumed alcohol “at dinner, or on a special occasion or holiday, with adult supervision” or “at parties with adult supervision.” Researchers didn't specifically ask teens if the adults were drinking with them or were just present. They were also asked how many times they’d experienced harmful consequences, such as “not able to stop once you had started,” “became violent and got into fight,” “got injured or had an accident,” “got so drunk you were sick or passed out,” “had sex with someone you later regretted,” or “were unable to remember the night before because you had been drinking.”

Poll: Do you let your teen drink alcohol at home?

Australian teens were more likely than their American counterparts to be drinking with adult supervision by eighth grade — 66 percent versus 35 percent — and they were more likely to have experienced harmful consequences from their drinking — 36 percent compared to 21 percent.

No matter which continent kids and parents came from, it was clear that the strategy to teach teens responsible drinking habits through supervised consumption was backfiring.

That finding didn’t surprise the experts.

“I think the study says something pretty important,” said Patrick Tolan, director of Youth-Nex: The University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. “Parents need to make it clear that it’s not OK for kids to drink until they reach the legal drinking age – a line has to be drawn.”

Still, many parents seem to have a particularly difficult time drawing lines when it comes to alcohol, said Mary O’Connor, a professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California—Los Angeles. “There are people I know who are very responsible parents in many ways who think that this is part of being a responsible parent,” O’Connor said.

TODAY Moms: Should parents lock up their liquor?

That may be related to our own mixed feelings about a substance that is actually a legal, mind-altering drug.

What parents tend to forget is that teens are not just smaller versions of us. Their brains have not finished developing and studies have shown that alcohol has a very different effect on the unfinished brain, O’Connor said.

“We know from both animal and human studies that alcohol affects brain development,” O’Connor said. “The teenage brain is much more vulnerable to begin with and we now know that repeated drinking can lead to long term deficits in learning and memory.”

Parents should model moderation
Beyond this, there’s mounting data showing that it can be dangerous to start drinking young, said Dr. Brian Primack, an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Studies have shown that kids are four times more likely to become alcoholics if they start drinking before age 15, Primack said. So, is it enough to simply draw the line and tell your kids they can’t touch a drop till they’re 21? Will that glass of wine with dinner — made all the more necessary by rebellious teens you live with — encourage them to drink too much?

Not necessarily, experts say.

“You want to model moderation,” Tolan explained. “You don’t want to be drinking a lot in front of them – or inviting them to parties where your friends will be drinking a lot. That will confuse them and lead them to think that it’s OK to drink a lot.”

You don’t have to lock down the liquor cabinet, he added, but “that said, you should remember that kids experiment.”

Parents should know know exactly what and how much alcohol they’ve got, O’Connor said. “And you want to taste it periodically to make sure it’s not been diluted,” she added.

That’s well and good for when your kids are at home. But what about that prom night situation?

The solution might be a simple one — let your teen host the party at your house. “I think alcohol free parties are a great idea,” McMorris said.

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Video: Should parents let teens drink alcohol at home?

  1. Closed captioning of: Should parents let teens drink alcohol at home?

    >>> morning on "today's parenting" a volatile issue with teens and alcohol . how do you teach your kids to drink responsibly? for some the answer is to let them tryle alcoh alcohol at home. here's lee cowan.

    >> reporter: for all the proven dangers of alcohol , especially drinking and driving we are taught only half the equation, it seems. while the law requires we learn how to drive, it does not require we learn how to drink.

    >> it's frightening to think you are going out there in this world experimenting at age 21.

    >> reporter: these days that experimenting is happening earlier. in fact, 11% of all alcohol consumed in this country is by those under 21. 6% of 12 to 14-year-olds say they have had a drink in the past month. that's 700,000 kids. the question is where did they get that drink?

    >> it was fun, but i knew how to not go too far.

    >> reporter: we gathered college students together to ask where they began drinking. the resounding answer, with their parents.

    >> they would give me a glass of wine here, a beer with winner or something.

    >> in my house it was more socially acceptable that you start drinking at home when you're younger.

    >> it taught me responsibility.

    >> reporter: it's touchy and not all parents agree.

    >> laws are in place for a good reason.

    >> reporter: terry moran 's kids never had a drop of alcohol at home and won't, he says, until they are legal.

    >> kids think, hey, if my parents think it's okay, i can just go and hang out with my friends and drink. i see it all the time.

    >> reporter: the argument for allowing drinking at home goes like this. first it's better to have kids learn their tolerance in a caring environment at home, not a bar. second, making alcohol accessible makes it less taboo.

    >> some parents may say you are not allowed to do this ever. we are not talking about it, trying it.

    >> reporter: first thing on your mind --

    >> i want to try it. why can't i? what is it that they don't want me to find out about?

    >> reporter: the down side, some experts say exposing teens to alcohol only increases the chances of binge drinking , even alcoholism later on. many experts say the research is inconclusive at best.

    >> i don't think there is a right answer, but if you ask me which i think is better, i think it's really, really important for parents to teach their kids to drink responsibly.

    >> reporter: it is a personal decision that we found very few parents want to talk about. no one wants to be accused of contributing to the abuse of alcohol , but just as many say demystifying alcohol may take away some of its power. for "today" lee cowan, nbc news, los angeles .

    >> dr. janet taylor is a psychiatrist and anne choquette is here from seventeen magazine . what do you think the answer is?

    >> i think we're talking about parents supplying alcohol where you throw the kids in the basement, take the keys and give them booze. it's not the right thing to do. first is discussing clear rules with your child, letting them know you will monitor their activities which you have to do for teenagers.

    >> so you're sitting around the family dinner table. wine is being served and you have a 15-year-old. is it okay to serve that 15-year-old a glass of wine? not smell it and take a sip. but a fwlaglass of wine to give them an idea what it's like to drink?

    >> 25% of their readers say their parents let them drink at home. what they are learning is not necessarily how to drink. what they are learning is trust. they say it's amazing that their parents trust them to behave responsibly in the house and when they are out of the house.

    >> are there studies that say those children then don't go out and experiment just as hard with friends who are underage?

    >> absolutely we need to worry about the parties, binge drinking is really a problem. teenagers who want access to alcohol will get it.

    >> studies were inconclusive. it's different if you're talk about sitting around and monitoring, yes, they can have a sip. do i say, give your child a glass of wine so they can know what it's like? no. binge drinking is different. we want to stop binge drinking in high school because they are more likely to binge drink in college. it gets back to the quality of the relationship and how much communication is happening at home.

    >> the laws aren't ambiguous. in all 50 states 21 is the legal age for drinking but 31 states do allow parents to provide alcohol to minors. so i do worry that if you're saying to your child, if you are not in one of those states where it's 21 or nothing saying, yeah, but it's okay at home. you're saying some laws are meant to be broken.

    >> the issue is we are trying to look at it in terms of learning to drive a car, a bike and drinking responsdrink ing responsibility. our job is to make sure our kids can make decisions. you don't have to sit with a glass of wine with your child to do that.

    >> when is the proper age, do you think, to initiate this conversation with kids?

    >> it's younger than you think it is. the pressure these kids feel at parties is phenomenal. it starts early. the first time your teen goes to a party where you think there could be drinking, that's the time for the conversation.

    >> it's middle school because it's about making choices and responsible decision making .

    >> i have one other concept to bring up. some parents say, okay, my kids can invite ten kids over and i will let them all drink. you're not supposed to be a parent for someone else's kid. that's a personal decision.

    >> i told my four daughters -- my souyoungest is 17. i said, if you're in a house and a parent lets you drink, that parent will deal with me. we have to take responsibility for what we allow to happen in our own home.

    >> thank you so much. appreciate

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