Around the world, it seems, there is an irresistible attraction between teenagers and alcohol. As parents, we worry about them trying it too early, drinking too much, and then developing a habit they can’t control. In the US, alcohol is the most used and abused drug among young people. Surely, then, we should be looking at ways to teach our kids to drink responsibly?
I can remember hanging around outside the off-licence (liquor store) with my friends as a teenager, waiting for someone’s older brother or sister to come by so we could ask them to buy us a bottle of cheap cider.
And it seems nothing changes. A few years ago, I worked with someone who had very definite ideas about bringing up her kids. They would work hard, be academically brilliant, and there’d be no anti-social behaviour on her watch, thank you very much.
Until the night the police brought her son home after finding him lying in an alleyway. He was so drunk, he was incoherent and incapable of walking. It turned out, on all those nights he said he was studying with friends, they’d told their parents the same thing. Instead of doing their homework, they’d stock up on cheap booze and get drunk in the local play park. On this occasion, my colleague’s son passed out. His friends panicked – they left him near a main road and called the police before running off.
That’s an extreme example, but it’s a situation many parents fears and something we need to address. What can we do to ensure our kids have a sensible relationship with alcohol?
Be a good role model
As with so much in life, we need to set the example we hope our children will follow. Kids with parents who drink heavily on a regular basis are more likely to drink excessively themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with a G&T before dinner or a glass of wine in the evening, but don’t make alcohol the focal point of your day. ‘Wine o’clock’ and jokes about ‘Mummy’s special grape juice’ have become part of the culture in the UK, but what example does this set? All it tells our kids is that the only way to get through each day is to open a bottle at the end of it.
Don’t hide it away
It might sound contradictory, but it’s ok for your kids to see you enjoy a drink – in moderation. In many European countries, children are used to seeing a bottle of wine on the table during meals. They’re even offered a sip now and then. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that you encourage your toddler to start knocking back the Merlot. But there’s no harm in letting them know it’s there. Teach them that it’s possible to enjoy a drink – yes, just one – and leave it at that. You don’t have to finish the bottle.
Talk to them
If your children are older, you might want to talk to them plainly about how the effects of drinking alcohol. Tell them it can change the way their brains develop, affecting their intelligence and happiness levels for the rest of their lives. That drinking regularly before the age of 15 means they’re more likely to become alcoholics than those who wait until they’re over 20. Explain that alcohol leads to confusion, poor choices and risky behaviour.
In the UK, young people aged 16 to 24 years are less likely to drink than any other age group, according to a 2017 study. It seems as though the message is sinking in.
Coach, don’t lecture
With younger children, it’s easier to be clear that it’s unacceptable for them to drink alcohol until they are grown up. Make sure they know you understand they’ll be curious, though, and they can come to you with any questions.
Once they’re in their mid-teens, it’s important they don’t feel you’re lecturing them. Simply telling them that drinking alcohol at their age is against the law and you won’t tolerate it won’t work.
Instead, help them develop good values and judgment. Ask them why they think there are rules on age when it comes to alcohol. If they’ve ever seen their friends’ parents drunk, and what they thought. What they’d do if they were offered a lift home and the driver had been drinking. Why they think teenagers want to drink.
Acknowledge the power of peer pressure and help them work out answers to help them say ‘no’ if they’re offered a drink when they’re outside the home.
If and when the time does come that your child tries alcohol when they shouldn’t try to deal with it calmly. Discuss why they felt it was ok to say yes or how they were sure they’d be able to control their behaviour and get home safely. What would they have done if things had gone wrong?
However angry you are, make sure they know you’re always there for them in case it happens again. Let them know they can always call you if they need you, no matter what – don’t let your anger at one lapse lead to tragedy after another.