Underage drinking is a big problem in the United States. In 2015, 7.7 million preteens and young adults between the ages 12 and 20 reported that they drank more than a few sips of alcohol in the preceding month. By the time they reach 15, about a third of U.S. teens have had at least one drink. This increases to about 60 percent by age 18, when kids go to college or reach an age where they can either purchase alcohol or are more likely to know someone who will get it for them.

Some parents try to address the problem of potential drinking by their teens by providing them with alcohol, believing that the controlled circumstances will help their children learn responsible drinking.

Underage drinkers often drink, sometimes in combination with energy drinks, at social events and binge drink as a way of partying. Even though they may not be regular drinkers, binge drinking still puts them at risk of developing alcohol use disorder, a set of physical and psychological symptoms that includes drinking larger and larger amounts of alcohol, a craving for alcohol, and disruptions to their school and social lives.

When adolescents drink, they are even more impulsive than usual, and their risk of injury and death — from motor vehicle accidents, physical and sexual assault, impaired judgment, and acute and chronic health effects of alcohol ingestion — goes up.

Drinking with Parental Approval

Some parents try to address the problem of teen drinking by exposing teens to alcohol at home. They believe their children can learn to drink responsibly under the controlled circumstances they provide. A recent study in The Lancet Public Health indicates this idea is mistaken: When parents supply alcohol to teens, it does more harm than good.

More than 1900 seventh-graders and their parents were recruited for the study from schools in three Australian cities and surveyed yearly from 2011 to 2016. The researchers focused on the teens' exposure to alcohol supplied by their parents as well as their other sources of alcohol. They looked for alcohol-related issues such as binge drinking and alcohol-related harms such as fighting or taking risks, as well as symptoms of alcohol abuse, dependence and alcohol use disorder.

Parents who think they are providing a safe social setting for drinking may want to examine their motives more closely, especially if they are drinking with their kids and their friends.

The online questionnaires kids and their parents were given each year were confidential. Parents and teens did not see each others' responses. Other factors contributing to alcohol use and abuse, including parents' alcohol use, a family history of alcohol problems, socioeconomic status, family conflict and parental employment — were also taken into account.

At the start of the study only about 15 percent of teens obtained alcohol through their parents. This increased to 57 percent by the study's end. As the teenagers aged during the study, the proportion of teens without any access to alcohol dropped from 81 percent to 21 percent.

The researchers found that adolescents who got alcohol from their parents were more likely to engage in binge drinking — defined as drinking about four or five drinks in two hours or enough to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.08 g/dL. The teens also were at increased risk for alcohol-related harm and for symptoms consistent with alcohol use disorder. Teens who were supplied by parents seemed also to be able to get alcohol through other sources more often than their peers. This form of access was also associated with more binge drinking, alcohol related harms, and signs of alcohol abuse, dependence and disorder, compared to those adolescents who were not supplied with alcohol by others.

Parents are right to want their kids to learn to drink safely. But if you want to help your teens learn to drink responsibly, don't serve kids alcohol at home. This study shows that it actually encourages drinking and offers parents a false sense of security. Parents who think they are providing a safe social setting for drinking may want to examine their motives more closely, especially if they are drinking with their kids and their friends.

The authors of this study strongly recommend that parents do not supply their adolescents with alcohol.