Teen Drinking: It's Not Just Their Pals You Have to Worry About

teen drinking in a bar
A teen girl drinks in a bar. (Image credit: Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock)

Exposure to good parenting protects kids — even if the parents aren't their own, suggests a new study that looked at how a friend's parents influence an adolescent's substance abuse.

Teens in the study who had friends whose mothers were authoritative (warm, but still in charge) were significantly less likely to drink, smoke cigarettes, or use pot than teens whose friends' parents were neglectful (lacking warmth and control), according to the study published today. The researchers controlled for the parenting style of each adolescent's own parents, and they looked at how much of the protective effect came from being friends with a kid who didn't abuse substances. Surprisingly, the results were only partially mediated by a peer's substance abuse.

"The majority of the effect of the peer's parents was direct," the authors wrote in the current issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

"Adolescents' friends' parents matter more than we thought,"said lead study author Holly Shakya, a public health researcher with the University of California, San Diego and Harvard University. Shakya said direct mentoring between a friend's parents and an adolescent may explain the results. "A good parent would most likely care about their child's friends and offer them the kinds of mentorship that is protective against risky behavior," she told LiveScience. [10 Facts Parents Should Know About Their Teen's Brain]

Shakya and her co-authors examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed participants four times, beginning in 1994-1995 when they were in 7th through 12th grade. They looked at this first survey as well as the second round, which took place in 1996. The researchers analyzed groups of friends, and they included results from 1,386 kids for whom they had complete data on their social networks, their parents' styles of parenting and their substance abuse.

The researchers classified parenting styles based on two dimensions: parental control and warmth. This previously established model categorizes four types of parents: "Authoritative parents are warm and communicative, but they also exert appropriate control," the authors described in the study, adding that neglectful parents show neither warmth nor control over their kids. "Authoritarian parents exert control while lacking warmth, while permissive parents show warmth but do not exert control."

(Studies have shown authoritative parents tend to have kids with greater academic success, more positive peer relationships, fewer delinquent and risky behaviors and higher levels of psychological well-being.)

Adolescents who had a friend whose mother was authoritative were 40 percent less likely to drink to the point of drunkenness, 38 percent less likely to binge drink (downing five or more alcoholic beverages in a row at least once within the last year), 39 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes and 43 percent less likely to use marijuana than an adolescent whose friend’s mother was neglectful.

The subjects rated their own mothers' parenting styles; previous research has shown that that kids reporting on their parents are more accurate than parents reporting on themselves. "Parents tend to make themselves look better than they really are," Shakya said.

"Previous literature has consistently shown us that 'good' parenting positively affects children and adolescents," she added. "This research suggests that the effect is not just limited to the simple parent-child relationship but that it extends out into the community, as well."

Aside from direct mentoring by their pals' moms, adolescents may have benefitted from watching good parenting in action. Regarding authoritative parents, Shakya said, "These are the kinds of parents that will sit down with their adolescent and discuss the implications of certain actions, and will be willing to listen to their child. It is possible that when an adolescent observes these kinds of interactions between a friend and the friend's parents, that they too are able to benefit from the understanding that develops from them."

Vetting your child's friend's parents could therefore safeguard your adolescent against substance abuse. Parents should also be aware that they may positively (or negatively) affect their kids' friends, Shakya said.

Parents may want to also vet their teen's pals' romantic partners as well, as research out last year found adolescents are more influenced by the drinking habits of their romantic partners' friends than they are by those of their best pals themselves or their own boyfriends or girlfriends.

Her advice to parents: "Communicate. Set limits. Be loving. And know what your child is up to and with whom."

Follow Jennifer Abbasi on Twitter @jenabbasi and LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

LiveScience Contributor