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'European model' of introducing alcohol to teens a double-edged sword for parents

ABC News logo ABC News 5/01/2017

© SolStock/Getty Images The 'European model' of introducing children and teenagers to alcohol in the home may decrease the rate of binge drinking, but it is not without its risks, a study has found.

Many parents introduce their children to alcohol by allowing them the occasional sip at home, and research has found while this increases the likelihood of children drinking full serves by their mid-teens, it also makes them less likely to binge drink.

In comparison, children who accessed alcohol from sources other than their parents were three times more likely to binge drink.

The study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales looked at drinking behaviours in children and how the alcohol was supplied.

Researchers followed nearly 2,000 children and their parents over four years from Year 7 onwards.

The study's lead author Professor Richard Mattick says the results present a conundrum for parents.

"The results suggest that parents who supply alcohol, even with the best intentions, are likely to accelerate their child's drinking," he said.

He says parents often supply alcohol to their children to prevent them from abusing the substance in the future.

It is a belief based on the 'European model' of drinking where children are introduced to alcohol slowly in a family setting.

"The notion that if you don't let them drink until they're 18 they'll suddenly become raging drinkers is really not that well supported," he said.

Professor Mattick said the research suggested certain personality traits are often linked with increased alcohol consumption.

"Those children who show personality traits such as aggression and truanting were likely to obtain alcohol whether their parents supplied it or not," the study said.

Additionally their likelihood of drinking increased if their peers drank.

Early initiation often associated with alcohol dependence

While the 'European model' may lessen a child's consumption, exposure to any alcohol at a young age still presents risks.

Research indicates the adolescent brain is still developing well into the early 20s, a process that drinking interferes with.

Professor Mattick says the immediate harms of drinking such as sexual behaviour, injury or violence, are often ignored.

"There may be later harms that are not yet obvious, and we are aware that early initiation of drinking is strongly associated with later alcohol use problems in adulthood."

He says historically earlier use of alcohol has been linked with a greater likelihood of alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence.

"The brain matter will shrink ... which occurs with heavy drinking," he said.

Delaying is the key

The study's message to parents is to delay your child's drinking for as long as possible.

"If you give them alcohol, they drink," Professor Mattick said.

"If you want to protect your kids you probably should delay drinking."

However this is not the most realistic approach with some teenagers drinking with or without permission.

The study indicated parental monitoring can be instrumental in preventing early drinking and alcohol abuse.

"You should approach it and say, 'if you're going to drink we want you to do it in a careful way and these are the rules we have'," Professor Mattick said.

The participants, now 17-years-old, will continue to be studied into their early 20s to understand the later impacts of their behaviour.

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