Monday, 14 May 2012

Alcohol and parenting

Here is an Opinion Piece that I wrote in February 2011 for Melinda Tankard-Reist's website:

I often tell the story of my visit to a small country town waiting to give a presentation to a group of parents. I was waiting in a hotel room watching a news program and a story about young people and alcohol use was just about to begin. The piece started with a statistic, as they usually do, with the newsreader stating that “one out of every 10 young people binge drink”.  As you can imagine the story that followed was fairly alarming and I remember sitting on the bed with my head in my hands thinking what chance do our teenagers really have? That figure sounds pretty scary for parents and it is – drinking to excess is dangerous, particularly when you are dealing with the developing brain, but why must we always be pushing out a negative message when it comes to this issue? Wouldn’t it have been much more powerful and positive to have started the piece by saying that nine out of ten haven’t taken part in this activity?

Well the statistic was thrown around again today – only this time it was ‘one out of five regularly binge drink by the age of 16’. Once again, it’s a frightening statistic and one that all parents should be concerned about but truly why can’t we ever say anything good about our kids! Not all of them are doing this – in fact, the majority aren’t!
No-one should stick their head in the sand and pretend that there isn’t a problem. When it comes to alcohol – it would be true to say that most young people will experiment with it at some time during their adolescence, but constantly reinforcing the negative is not good for anyone! As a result, parents grow increasingly concerned and those young people who do not drink to excess (and most particularly those who do not drink at all) feel that there is something wrong with them.So what is the current situation when it comes to alcohol and young people in Australia?
Alcohol is such a huge part of Australian culture and it would be difficult to identify any social gathering that takes place in this country where it does not play a significant role. Whether it be a christening, a wedding, a funeral, a birthday party or simply getting together with a few friends for dinner – alcohol is there and often consumed to excess. As I always say, our young people learn from somewhere and we are very good teachers, even when we don’t want to be.
One of the most worrying things that I have noticed over the years is that parents now want to try and be their child’s best friend rather than their parent. It’s important to remember that your child has the opportunity to make lots of friends in their lives – they only get one set of parents and you are it! The fear that you may lose your relationship with your child if you act like a parent, particularly if you dare to say no to them, is irrational. Young people need parents to give them guidance and to set rules and boundaries around a whole range of activities, including alcohol use. Although teenagers may not always like the rules that are set, they are necessary and assist them to socialize with others in a responsible and healthy way.
Parents across the country are desperate for guidance on how to deal with the introduction of alcohol to their children. Unfortunately the jury is still out and there is no definitive answer that suits all families. One thing, however, is now extremely clear - the longer the human brain can avoid alcohol, the better chance it has to develop its full potential. All experts now agree that teenagers under 16 years of age should avoid alcohol.
This is a comparatively new message. For years when I was asked how and when to introduce alcohol to children, my response was “before someone else does and as early as you think appropriate, at a family meal.” That message has changed dramatically. You still want to try to ensure that your child’s first drink isn’t at a park on a Saturday night, but providing it too early, without clear rules and boundaries, is likely to be just as problematic.
Parents can make a real difference when it comes to alcohol consumption, particularly if they really put their mind to it. Here are some simple tips that may help:
Talk to your partner about the role alcohol plays in your lives and the message this is sending your children about its importance.
Set clear rules and boundaries early, ensuring your children understand why the rules exist, i.e. you love them and want to keep them safe.
Create consequences for breaking the rules and stick to them.
Educate by example – you are the most powerful role model in your child’s life – don’t make alcohol the focus of every social event.
Try not to drink every day and limit your consumption when you do drink.

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