Paediatric dietitian Anna Richards offers ways to help young adults respect alcohol and make responsible choices.
It’s a leap of faith, sending our children into the world, trusting our messages got through, and we gave them the tools to cope. The news is flooded with reports of binge drinking teens swamping our emergency departments. Our culture socialises using alcohol and most children will have tried it by the time they are 14. As parents, what can we do to raise young adults who respect alcohol and don’t binge drink, to prevent our young people becoming that ED statistic?
What are the rules around teenage drinking?
In New Zealand, you can’t buy alcohol under the age of 18. It’s also illegal to supply alcohol to someone under the age of 18. But there is no actual age limit for drinking, so anyone can legally have a drink at any age.
Parents are allowed to serve alcohol to their teenagers if they want to, but it has to be in a supervised setting and in a responsible manner. It is only legal to serve alcohol to another under-18-year-old if you have their parent or guardian’s express permission and, again, it’s in a supervised and responsible manner.
According to Grant Christie, lead clinician for Altered High youth addiction service, the longer teens delay alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop problems associated with it.
The Medical Research Council recommends adolescents under the age of 15 do not drink alcohol and that they delay as long as possible after that.
What’s normal drinking behaviour for teens?
Teenage drinking is not a new thing. The trouble is high-risk behaviour and drinking to excess are more common in young people, particularly among young males.
They are also more vulnerable to harm than an older person drinking the same amount.
In New Zealand, 76 per cent of secondary school students have drunk alcohol, with six out of 10 saying they are current drinkers. Of these, almost half (46 per cent) say they consume more than five drinks in one session.
Binge drinking, drunkenness and loss of control can open a minefield of sexual, physical and mental health problems. There is no safe drinking level for children’s developing brains and bodies and binge drinking exacerbates the harm.
According to a Research New Zealand report, ‘for many young people in New Zealand, binge drinking will be a normalised rite of passage to adulthood’.
The likelihood of our teens drinking alcohol at some point is pretty high, but we can try to teach them to drink sensibly by creating a healthier drinking culture.
What is our drinking culture?
Drinking culture is the customs and norms shared by groups of people in regards to drinking alcohol.
There are a few dimensions to New Zealand drinking culture. Like many other cultures, we drink alcohol to celebrate special occasions such as weddings and birthdays.
Many of us enjoy wine with a meal and drink to socialise at parties and barbecues and at the end of the week with workmates.
One or two drinks can help people relax and act as a social lubricant.
Around 79 per cent of Kiwis aged 16-64 years old report drinking at least some alcohol, and while that in itself isn’t really a problem, some of our drinking behaviour is, arguably, not the healthiest example for kids to emulate. In one year, just over 61 per cent of us consumed large amounts of alcohol in a session, ie. more than four standard drinks for women and more than six for men.
Ministry of Health guidelines are for women to drink no more than two standard drinks in a day and men no more than three.
More than eight per cent of Kiwi adults drink more than the recommended guidelines multiple times a week and 15 per cent have a potentially hazardous drinking pattern, according to Ministry of Health data.
What’s an example of a healthy drinking culture?
In many places in Europe, people of all ages consume wine with meals, but excessive drinking and drunkenness is openly frowned upon. The Portuguese drink slowly, and drink espresso and sparkling water between alcoholic drinks.
Greeks and Italians of all ages party late into the night drinking, singing and dancing without drunkenness.
What’s normal behaviour?
Adolescents do experiment, take risks and push boundaries. It is part of sorting out who they are. Experimenting with alcohol can be part of that. We just need to be careful that our opinions as parents don’t drive drinking underground. It’s not that drinking won’t happen, rather we won’t hear about it. The ideal is to be a good enough listener that our kids will be open with us.
Put it into words
A strong common message is the importance of open, non-judgemental conversations with our children, starting when they’re young. Do your homework first, let the subject arise naturally and present a balanced point of view, positives and negatives of alcohol, and let them know it is okay to choose not to drink. If uncomfortable conversations make you squirm, take heed, closing down or avoiding topics signals disapproval.
Talk about things you might think are obvious but need to be put into words, including:
How developing bodies and brains have a lower alcohol tolerance than adults, girls lower than boys and how quickly drinking excessively can become life threatening
Increasingly, weight-conscious people choose not to eat to balance the energy they drink – so-called ‘drunkorexia’ – making them miss out on vital nutrients and risking their health
When alcohol is in the mix, you are more at risk of doing something you will regret, such as having unsafe sex, or of having a crime committed against you
That drink driving risks their lives and others’. Make a taxi or Uber accessible or arrange to collect them if they need you to.
The power of a plan
Most teens will drink at some stage. Help them have both a plan for this and an escape plan. Just as important as knowing when to stop drinking is knowing they can get help and involve adults if something goes wrong. You can have a conversation with your teen along the lines of: ‘I don’t want you to drink excessively, and it is important to know your limits, but you can always call if you are in an unsafe situation, no questions asked.’
The surprising influence of social media
Social media often gets a bad rap but could it be connected to our kids drinking less? Dr Christie says teens are drinking less than they used to and are making better choices. People have always drunk to feel more confident and partied with alcohol to socialise. But, both Dr Christie and psychologist Louis Van Nykerk say, social media provides an easy way to connect that doesn’t involve boozy partying.
Power of connection
Safe, supportive opportunities to socialise provide an alternative for alcohol-fuelled parties.
Being part of a sports team or a dance or music group, provides a way to interact other than round a bottle. Peer pressure by team mates relying on each other to turn up for practice or game is powerful. Supportive environments teach your child to be their own person, make their own judgements and trust their instincts and, if it doesn’t feel right, call you.
Young people who do not feel connected to family or a group or who are having psychological, emotional or behavioural problems are more likely to binge drink.
Set clear boundaries
Your child doesn’t need you to be their friend around alcohol, they need you to be their parent. Set boundaries, keep talking and be there for them.
Limit money and know what your child is spending. Alcohol can be a gateway for drugs. Unexplained financial transactions can alert you at an early stage.
Monkey see, monkey do
It’s a daunting thought for parents, but we are their most important role models, especially while they’re young. They watch and learn from every sip that passes our lips. What we drink, where, when, how much and our attitude toward alcohol form the blueprint for our children’s relationship with alcohol.
Ways to help young adults respect alcohol
- Lead by example: Model the behaviour you would like to see in your child, right from toddler days
- Talk: Things that seem obvious to us may not be obvious to our children. Start early
- Talk about risks associated with alcohol: Personal safety, safe sex, drink driving and how rapidly they can become very ill
- Be non-judgemental
- Be there for your child: Make sure they know they can always call if they find themselves in an unsafe situation
- Delay drinking as long as possible
- Monitor your child’s movements: Keep an eye on money spent and enforce curfews to minimise the time your child is out drinking, with consequences for rule breaking
- Enable your child to be their own person.
Acknowledgements: With thanks to Grant Christie, Altered High youth addiction service lead clinician; psychologist Louis Van Nykerk; and my book and walking groups, made up of intelligent, articulate women and experienced mothers.
For further reading, see the Parenting Guidelines for Adolescent Alcohol