QUESTION: My son has just turned 16 and has been telling me that his friends have started drinking and he’s been joking that he should be allowed to drink too. He’s also been asking to go to house parties where I’m sure there will be drinking going on. Some of my friends have advised me that I should let him have a drink at home rather than having him do it behind my back. I’m not sure about doing this, and would greatly value your opinion.
You are right to be concerned about this issue. Teen binge drinking and all the associated problems have been on the increase in recent years in Ireland. Many surveys have found that teenagers are drinking earlier and more heavily than their counterparts a decade or two ago.
While, of course, media influences and peer pressure are variables in teenage drinking, parents have a crucial role in influencing teenagers positively to delay drinking until they are older and in reducing problematic drinking when they start. Good supervision, role-modelling and effective parent-child communication are all key factors in helping your teen avoid problems with alcohol.
In tackling teenage drinking, parents are often faced with dilemmas such as the ones you describe. Should I allow my teen go to parties where there is drinking? Should I allow my teen to drink at home where I can supervise him?
In considering these questions, it is worth looking at some of the research in relation to problematic drinking. The biggest predictor of later problems with alcohol for young adults is the age they start drinking. The earlier your teen starts to drink, the more likely they are to go on to have problems (and to go on to use other drugs).
As a parent, a very important goal is to try to get your teen to delay starting to drink until as late as possible. Though some teenagers may start to drink earlier, personally I think the legal age of 18 years is the standard to aim for. It is important to sit down with your teenagers and to state your values in this regard.
A lot of parents are afraid to raise the subject, but sitting down and telling your teen that you’d prefer that they did not drink until they are older, and explaining your positive reasons for this, sends out a very important signal.
For this reason, I am not sure that supervised drinking at home is a good idea for teenagers as it sends out a mixed message. Of course, teenagers may go behind your back and choose to experiment with drinking, but they are less likely to do this if they know your clear preference in this regard.
Good supervision is also very important. When young teenagers are going to parties you need to check where they will be going, agree when they will be back, make sure they have their phone on, and so on.
It is okay to have a rule that they should not be going to parties where drink is freely available unless they can convince you that they can be trusted and will not join in.
It is also useful to have conversations with your teenager about the dangers of alcohol and drugs and to be proactive in this regard. Some studies have shown that children whose parents openly discuss issues such as drugs/alcohol are less likely to experiment with drugs or have problematic drinking when they are older – it is important that they are getting information from you and not just from the media and their peer group.
These conversations don’t have be formal sit-down affairs. When your teen jokes about being allowed to drink, this can be a time to start a conversation, or you might open a discussion when the topic comes up on the news or even during a soap opera or in a movie.
The best approach is to listen to teenagers’ opinion first, before sharing your own values. For example, if a storyline in a soap opera focuses on teen drinking, you can ask your son different questions such as, “What do you think of what is happening?” or “How safe is that teenager?” or “What would you do in the same situation?”
An equally important conversation to have with your son is around dealing with peer pressure. In research on school programmes to prevent early smoking, drinking or drug taking, the most successful approaches were not ones that simply focused on highlighting the dangers of these behaviours but also ones that taught young people how to assert themselves, to resist peer pressure and to say no to their peers in a positive way.
For example, it is useful to discuss with your son:
What would he do if someone offered him drugs?
What would he say if he felt pressured to do something that he didn’t want to?
In the future, you can also use these conversations to explore safe drinking with him. For example, asking for example:
How could ensure he was safe if he went to a party?
How would he know a safe level of drinking?
Which friends could he trust most when he was out?
Talking through the issues with your son and helping him think up options and strategies is a good way to help him be safe in the long term.
So, to summarise, the best approach to helping your teenager with alcohol is to delay their starting to drink as late as possible, and when they start, to help them to do this in a safe and social way. Being realistic, the message to give your teenagers is, “Be good, and if you can’t be good be careful.”
In addition, it is important to always supervise your teenagers in line with their age and check in on them to ensure there is regular contact between you.
Above all, make sure the lines of communication are always open, and give them the message that no matter what happens they can turn to you for support and guidance.
John Sharry, Irish Times, June 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
Monday 7th November 2016: John will be starting a 3-night course on ‘Parenting 10-16 year olds’ in Dublin. ‘Building Self-Esteem in Children’ Talk, Nov 30th Information here.