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Can parenting styles affect whether a child uses drinking to cope with stress? New Northeastern research says potentially

Robert Leeman, chair of the health sciences department at Northeastern, was part of a study that found permissive behavior around teen drinking put kids at risk for problems with alcohol.

Can parents’ attitudes toward alcohol affect their children’s drinking? New research finds an indirect influence. Getty Images

Every parent wants their kid to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. But how do you help them get there? Is it by letting them drink while they’re young in hopes of making alcohol less alluring? Or by taking a strict no-drinking approach when they’re underage?

The answer is neither, according to research from Robert Leeman, professor and chair of the health sciences department at Northeastern University, who worked with a team looking into the indirect influence of parenting styles on a person’s tendency toward heavy episodic drinking to alleviate stress. 

Research found that, specifically, maternal permissiveness was indirectly linked to more alcohol problems and episodes of heavy drinking to deal with stress while authoritative styles that set boundaries were indirectly linked to fewer alcohol-related issues and stress-induced drinking episodes.

“We’ve found both passive parenting styles and authoritarian parenting styles can have negative outcomes in terms of the children’s substance use risk for different reasons,” Leeman said. “There’s anecdotal evidence that if we demystify alcohol for our kids, then they’ll be less likely to be at risk later on. That’s not what the data say.”

Leeman said there’s other elements at play here, including family history and how alcohol impacts the person. But study data show overall that children allowed to drink underage are at more of a risk of alcohol problems and heavy drinking episodes. 

Meanwhile, the less early exposure children have, the lower their risk is for these issues.

“If somebody is going to begin drinking at some point in their life, the later that they do it, the better,” Leeman said. “This ‘let the kids and their friends drink in my house’ flies in the face of that.” 

The work corroborates with Leeman’s past research, which focuses on addictive behaviors and difficulties with self-control, mostly when it comes to alcohol and young adults.

Leeman said a more strict, authoritarian style can also be ineffective in curbing drinking among kids, because as they age, they don’t necessarily understand why they need to be cautious around drinking. This puts them at risk of acting out when they’re on their own and able to make their own decisions around alcohol, because they might not necessarily understand the dangers of drinking.

“It’s parenting out of fear and the children don’t internalize why,” Leeman said. “I know parents can sometimes get frustrated with one ‘why?’ question after another from children. It might seem defiant, but that’s typically not the case. They’re just trying to understand.”

What is the best approach parents can take when it comes to teen drinking? Leeman said the research found that an authoritative approach was indirectly linked with better outcomes. Parents using this style don’t operate from a place of fear, but explain to children why they set the boundaries they do.

“The reason why people use these substances is they feel really good in your brain,” Leeman said. “I think we need to be honest about that, tempered with (a reason) why you need to not use them or use them moderately when you’re of age.”

The goal of this, Leeman said, is to empower children to make their own decisions while also being willing to say no, especially when it comes to letting them go to places where there will be drinking or drugs. 

“I know it’s easy to feel beaten down as a parent, that you don’t have a big impact on your child’s life,” Leeman said. “That’s just not the case. (Kids) really are listening and there’s good evidence that parenting continues to have an impact, not just negatively, but positively into a young person’s 20s.”