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Pass Complete: Tailgating Can Spawn Drinking Habits

New research links parental drunkenness at college football tailgating parties with alcohol abuse by their kids.
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College football season has arrived, and many family-oriented fans will be taking their kids to a stadium this weekend. But if they robustly engage in a favorite pre-game ritual – alcohol-enhanced tailgating parties – team loyalty won’t be the only thing they’re passing down to the next generation.

Newly published research links parental inebriation at these parking-lot picnics with problem drinking by their college-student offspring. The sight of Mom or Dad drunk in this school- and sports-related context seems to send an uniquely powerful message.

“By perceiving their parents to be drunk at tailgates, students may learn to associate social or sporting events with heavy drinking,” a research team led by Caitlin Abar writes in the Journal of Adolescence. “It is also possible that perceptions of parental drunkenness on campus are … easier to recall when making alcohol-related decisions.”

The researchers studied a random sample of 290 freshmen at Penn State – where, they note, “over 100,000 people attend football games, and a large portion tailgates before and/or after the games.” The students were first asked to estimate how often in the past year their father or mother had five or more drinks in a two-hour period. Then were then asked whether their parents attend tailgating parties, whether they drink at these gatherings, and whether they get drunk on such occasions.

The freshmen were then asked about their own drinking habits, including the number of drinks they have on a typical weekend (the average was 9.14), and the number of times they’ve gotten drunk in the past month (1.86 on average). Finally, they answered a set of 26 questions pertaining to negative consequences of alcohol abuse.

The students reported that 27 percent of their mothers and 46 percent of their fathers engaged in heavy episodic drinking in the past year. Forty-two percent reported that their parents tailgated; 38 percent said their parents drank at tailgating parties; and 21 percent said their parents got drunk at these events.

Not surprisingly, heavy drinking by parents (at least as perceived by their kids) was associated with higher levels of student drinking. But it appears not all parental drinking binges have the same impact on adolescents; for some reason, those that occur at tailgating parties are particularly predictive of trouble to come.

“When holding all other predictors constant, more frequent parental drunkenness at tailgates was associated with higher student weekend drinking, frequency of drunkenness, and experienced (negative) consequences,” the researchers report. They add this association was “over and above the influence of more typical parental modeling.”

The researchers aren’t sure of the reasons for this. But it’s easy to see how the unintended message that “college is a place where it’s OK to get drunk” could come across loud and clear. Further exploration along these lines seems warranted, along with a two-pronged warning to parents: Kids mimic your behavior. And context matters.

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