Iowa State graduate student Olivia Diggs served as lead author of a new study that reveals how parents can either positively or negatively affect their sons’ alcohol use. Contributed photo.

Iowa State University research sheds light on trends in male alcohol use

A new study from Iowa State University researchers in human development and family studies reveals the impact of parent communication on alcohol use among male adolescents.

Olivia Diggs, lead author of the study and a human development and family studies graduate student who received a Ruth and Vincent Mahoney Student Opportunity Fund Scholarship, said the research highlights that parents have an influence throughout their children’s lifetimes.

“The study highlights different intervention points,” Diggs said. “The parenting variables that we looked at, when kids are in that early adolescence age, set them up for continued communication through late adolescence.”

Parent communication, alcohol use connections

The research, published in the December 2017 Journal of Adolescent Health, reveals both the positive and negative effects of parental interactions in relation to their son’s alcohol use.

Trained interviewers videotaped families’ structured discussion tasks, which involved parents and their adolescent conversing about household rules and chores.

When fathers exhibited “harsh parenting” — defined as relational hostility (annoyance, criticism, or disapproving behavior), antisocial behavior, and angry coerciveness — in conversations with their sons, the young males were more likely to misuse alcohol, with increased usage reported in late adolescence (ages 18 and 19) and emerging adulthood (ages 21 and 23). Conversely, when mothers and their sons engaged in positive communication practices with one another, the study data revealed fewer instances of alcohol use.

To further qualify parent/adolescent interactions, parents were asked how often they and their adolescent figure out how to deal with a problem that arises, how often their adolescent comes to them to talk about bothersome topics, and how often they ask their adolescent for input before making decisions that affect their child. Responses were rated to determine the quality of communication between parents and adolescents.

Adolescent, parent education

In the paper, Diggs and her co-authors — Tricia Neppl, an associate professor in human development and family studies; Brenda Lohman, the College of Human Sciences associate dean for research and graduate education; and Shinyoung Jeon, an Iowa State alumna who is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, stress the need for parents’ positive communication practices.

That need can be even greater for rural families, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that less urbanized youth are at a higher risk for underage drinking than those in larger metropolitan cities.

“Adolescence is a critical time developmentally for male youth,” the researchers said in the study paper. “It is imperative that rural-dwelling parents continue to be educated on the unique gendered effects of their alcohol use patterns, harsh parenting, and the importance of positive communication practices, as they all influence their sons’ alcohol consumption in late adolescence into emerging adulthood.”

Robust research

Data for the study came from the Iowa Youth and Families Project and the subsequent Family Transitions Project, comprising a longitudinal study of more than 450 rural Iowa youth from two-parent households over more than two decades. Neppl serves as co-director of the project.

“What is unique about this research project is that we have prospective data for almost 30 years on three generations of families,” Neppl said. “Thus, we are able to examine predictors and outcomes of behavior, such as parenting and alcohol use, over time for individuals and families residing in rural Iowa.”