Natural mentors for youth: Leveraging a familial asset for drinking prevention and intervention

Strunin, L., Díaz-Martínez, A., Díaz-Martínez, L. R., Kuranz, S., Hernández-Ávila, C. A., Pantridge, C. E., & Fernández-Varela, H. (2015). Natural mentors and youth drinking: a qualitative study of Mexican youths. Health education research30(4), 660-670.

Summarized by Rachel Rubin



It is widely documented that family attitudes and patterns influence youth behaviors and outcomes, such as youth alcohol use. Several aspects of family life, such as parental support, communication, parental monitoring, and positive parent-child relationships, serve as protective factors against high levels of drinking. At the same time, parental role modeling of alcohol use is associated with earlier ages of youth beginning to drink and risky alcohol use. However, other research has found that integrating alcohol use in the family setting can be protective for youth and actually reduce the risk of binge drinking or other problematic drinking behaviors among youth.

Extended family members (e.g., aunts, uncles, grandparents) have the potential to serve as natural mentors for youth. Mentoring relationships that develop from these naturally occurring relationships (i.e., youths’ existing social networks and family) have been found to have a positive effect on the promotion of positive behaviors and reduction of negative behaviors. These findings have extended to alcohol use, showing that youth are less likely to engage in alcohol use behaviors of which their mentors do not approve.

Alcohol use among youth is currently a public health concern in Latin America, with heavy drinking increasing among male and female youth in recent years and the age of initial use decreasing. Due to the importance of family norms and values (e.g., interdependence, close familial relationships) in Mexican families, this study sought to investigate how family relationships (specifically relationships between youth and extended family) and family attitudes on alcohol use can be used to help prevention and intervention efforts among youth in Mexico, as well as Mexican-American and other youth in the United States.


This study is Phase 1 of a 2-Phase study investigating patterns of alcohol use that may alter or prevent risk taking among Mexican youth. Participants in this qualitative study included 117 first year students (ages 18-24; 49% female) at a free public university in Mexico City. Students were selected based on their responses to a mandated general health survey conducted by the university’s Medical Services during orientation, which asked about students’ drinking habits. Students were selected purposely to be a representative sample of the larger group of students taking part in the health survey.

Students fell into one of four consumption (i.e., drinking pattern) groups including: heavy drinkers (i.e., drinking 3+ days/week and 4-6+ drinks/occasion) regular drinkers (i.e., drinking 2-4 times/month), occasional drinkers (i.e., drinking monthly or less) and non-drinkers (i.e., never drinking).

Investigators used ethnographic open-ended interviews designed to explore youths’ attitudes towards and patterns of alcohol use. In addition, the interviews were designed to gain an understanding of the risk and protective factors related to alcohol use by asking students about both their own and their family members’ alcohol related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.  The interviews lasted between 45 and 90 minutes and length and took place in private spaces on the university’s campus. Interviews were analyzed by using a set of thematic codes that the authors developed inductively from the interview transcripts.



Although the student sample came from four drinking groups that were identified by the general health survey, based on the ethnographic interviews, the authors identified six drinking groups. These drinking groups included excessive drinkers (i.e., drinking 10+ drinks/occasion 1-2+ times/week; 21 students in the sample), heavy drinkers (i.e., drinking 5-8 drinks/occasion and 2-3 times/week; 27 students in the sample), regular drinkers (i.e., drinking 1-4 drinks/occasion 2-8 times/month; 23 students in the sample), occasional drinkers (i.e., drinking 1-4 drinks 1/month or fewer; 28 students in the sample), and abstainers (i.e., no drinking in past 6 months; 10 students in sample).

All students in the sample described regular contact with their extended family members (e.g., spending meals and celebrations together). Students described having close relationships with uncles, aunts, and grandparents who influenced their own attitudes on alcohol use through three different ways. First, extended family members provided counsel. That is, these family members provided advice and guidance about alcohol use, with excessive drinkers describing getting warnings from family members regarding drinking behavior. Second, students were influenced by reverse-modeling in which youth heard or saw extended family members’ negative experiencing with alcohol that subsequently deterred them from drinking. Finally, students described being influenced through family representation. That is, youth described having family members, especially uncles, who served as family representatives that permitted moderate drinking while maintain the family’s norms and expectations regarding alcohol use.



From this study it is clear that, in Mexican families, extended family members are often fulfilling the role of a natural mentor. Students reported having close relationships with extended family members (i.e., aunts, uncles, and grandparents) who impacted their views and behaviors on alcohol use. These family members affected youths’ alcohol attitudes and behaviors by engaging in counseling, reverse-role modeling, and representing family values. The impact of these extended family members, however, was not seen among excessive drinkers. More research is needed to explore the influence of extended family members on youths’ alcohol-related attitudes and behaviors when youth are heavier drinkers. Further, uncles were the most frequently cited by youth as taking the role of informal mentors. Therefore, future research should investigate how uncles can be leveraged and used in alcohol prevention and intervention efforts.

Overall, interventions used with Mexican families should explore using extended family members, especially uncles, as part of their program efforts. Further, to capitalize on this familial asset, extended family members of youth should be trained in order to be more intentional in their mentoring efforts related to alcohol prevention and intervention.