Sunday, 20 October 2013

Should I drink with my child?


A recent Deakin University study found rates of teenage binge drinking were reduced by 25% when parents set rules not to supply or allow adolescent alcohol use. The findings by Professor John Toumbourou and his team come from a larger project called Resilient Families - a two year parent education program run through the early secondary school years. Information was provided on the harmful impact of adolescent alcohol use and parents were encouraged not to supply or allow adolescent alcohol use.

I don't think the results are too surprising but they are extremely useful to those parents who struggle every weekend sticking to the rules they have around teenage drinking. The findings support previous research that rules and consequences around alcohol use are vital and that they do make a difference - strict parental rules prevent youth from drinking more alcohol (note I didn't say from drinking at all!).

Unfortunately for some parents saying 'no' to their adolescent when it comes to alcohol can be very difficult. There are a range of reasons for this but one of the ones I see most often is that parents believe they can't say 'no' because they drink themselves and it would be hypocritical! For some of these parents who do have alcohol at home and drink regularly themselves the answer is simple - drink with your teen and hopefully they will pick up your 'positive' drinking habits!

So is drinking with your child encouraging them, controlling them or teaching them responsible drinking? Some people cite the 'Mediterranean Model' as a good example of how you could introduce alcohol to a child in the home, i.e., with a meal with the family like they do in countries like Greece and Italy. Unfortunately, simply 'transplanting' the Mediterranean Model to Australia does not necessarily work as there are so many other social influences at play. In this country, alcohol is associated with success in so many areas of life, whether it be sport or celebration and that is difficult to challenge simply by providing alcohol with a meal. It is also important to acknowledge that even in countries where this model once appeared to have been successful there are now growing problems, e.g., France now has one of the highest rates of liver disease in the world and are now seeing some significant youth drinking issues. Although family influence is incredibly important, there are so many other external influences that bombard our kids from a very early age, most of which are almost impossible to control, the positive messages you are trying to send can become confused, sometimes resulting in a completely different message being conveyed to the one intended.

Kids learn from you and start modelling your behaviour from a very early age, so whether you drink with them or away from them they will copy how you handle your alcohol. But be aware that drinking with them is likely to send them the message that you condone and support their drinking at an early age. It is also important to keep in mind that research suggests that the more alcohol parents consume, the more frequent are drinking problems in the lives of their children in later life. Like it or not (and let me tell you some parents get very angry when you tell them this), the research is clear that parents who are non-drinkers or light drinkers are less likely to have children with alcohol problems in later life. 

Delaying drinking for as long as possible is still the best message for teenagers as the research is clear that the younger the child is introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a range of problems, including dependence later in life. Researchers have long known that the age at which a person starts drinking or taking drugs is a good predictor of whether or not he or she will have future problems, particularly dependence or addiction. A recent study, for example, found that a person who starts drinking alcohol between the age of 11 and 14, for example, has a 16% chance of becoming alcohol dependent (an 'alcoholic') 10 years later, while the odds are just 1% for someone who starts at 19 or older. It has also been estimated that approximately 40% of adult alcoholics were heavy drinkers during their adolescence.

Too many parents make the mistake of thinking that it's inevitable that their teenager will drink alcohol and that drinking is a 'rite of passage' that they all go through. This is not true – not every teenager drinks. Throwing your hands in the air and declaring that you will drink with them in an effort to encourage responsible drinking sends the wrong message and is unlikely to work. You can play a role in cultural change and keep your child safe and healthy by delaying the introduction to alcohol for as long as possible.

I'm certainly not going to pretend that this will be easy and to be honest, if they're going to want to drink, there's very little you can do to stop them (could your parents stop you?) - but you certainly shouldn't be making it easy for them! Here are some practical tips that may help a little ...

  • Communicate: Clearly explain your concerns about underage drinking and why you don't want them to drink alcohol until they are older. Tell them about the range of risks involved and your concerns about their physical, psychological and social health. They may not agree with your views on the matter but they need to understand why you have created the rules that exist in your house.
  • Provide another option: If you have a culture or tradition of adults and children drinking together then offer non-alcoholic options (fruit juice, water, sparkling water or grape juice), maybe in a special cup or glass to make them feel it's special time being shared.
  • Don't make alcohol the focus: Try not to make every family gathering or celebration focus around alcohol. Make a point of having alcohol-free barbeques to demonstrate to your children that you can enjoy yourself without alcohol.
  • Talk to your kids: Ask them what their view is about your drinking habits. What they like and dislike about how alcohol is consumed in the family. It will help you reflect on your own behaviours and open up the lines of communication for setting ground rules in the future.
 

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