Children are naturally curious about alcohol – they see people drinking it or advertisements promoting it – and they want to know more. As a parent, what you say and do has a big influence on your child, but it can be difficult to know when to talk about alcohol, and what to say.
This section gives tips and guidance for parents about approaching the issue with their children, particularly 11-16 year-olds. Talking about it early on will help your child to understand alcohol and its effects, and make sensible choices about drinking in the future.
You, your child and alcohol
Children are influenced by many different factors – their friends, their teachers, the internet, the media, etc. However, in most cases, parents have the biggest influence on their children’s behaviour and this includes how the children approach alcohol.
Adolescence is a transition period between puberty and adulthood. This period of life, roughly from 10 to 20 years of age (“teenagers”), is a critical time of development on many different levels, especially on initiation and escalation of alcohol use. Because parents play an important role during child development and because there are important continuities from childhood to adolescence; it is important to disseminate research findings on what to do or what to say depending on age and gender of children.
That means that parents need to address the issue with their children, discussing the issues and agreeing some rules that the family will stick to.
For example, an investigation into substance abuse among young people found that when parental monitoring is in place – knowing where their kids are, and who they’re with, they are much less likely to begin using drugs.
Another report found that in 30 out of 31 countries surveyed young people consumed significantly more alcohol when their parents did not know how they spent Saturday nights.
Why should I talk to my child about alcohol?
It can be difficult to know when to raise the issue of alcohol with your child, and what to say. Most children are aware of alcohol from an early age, and ideally you should talk to your child about drinking before they start experimenting with alcohol. If you find they’ve already started, it’s important to understand why they might want to.
What you say and do really influences your child, so you’re in a good position to make sure they have the facts about alcohol and drinking, and can make sensible choices in the future.
When should I raise the subject?
Try to avoid forcing the issue – it’s better to wait until the subject comes up naturally. You could pick up on a newspaper story about alcohol, or something that’s on television; or wait until your child asks you questions about drinking.
Do whatever feels comfortable for you and your family, but ideally you should discuss the issue before your child starts experimenting with alcohol or faces pressure from their peers. Be prepared to say NO if you are uncomfortable with party situations and lay down ground rules.
What should I say?
Even young children are aware of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour for adults and children when it comes to alcohol. So you can start talking to them about drinking at quite an early age. Parenting skills aren’t taught and there’s no blueprint for bringing up children. Every child and every family is different, and we all communicate in our own way.
You need to aim for a balance: warning them of the dangers, including taking aspirin with alcohol which can intensify alcoholic poisoning, and making them aware of the laws; but also saying that they can enjoy moderate social drinking when they’re adults if they choose to.
The important thing is to focus on the facts, and to give your child the knowledge and skills to avoid the dangers associated with alcohol. You could explain the effect of alcohol on the body and mind, and that even small amounts will affect their ability to make rational judgements and sensible decisions.
At what age should I allow my child to drink?
There is no agreed age at which it is considered ‘normal’ for children to drink. Some parents allow their children to try a little alcohol with them on special occasions; others prefer not to. There is some evidence that shows drinking at an earlier age increases the possibility of alcohol-related harm later on, but other studies show young people introduced to drinking in the home, with good parental role models are less likely to binge and more likely to develop moderate drinking habits. But it’s up to you to decide whether and how much your child can drink at home.
Whatever you decide, stick to your guns and make sure your child understands why it can be dangerous for young people to drink. They should also know that there are laws restricting the age at which you can buy and drink alcohol. Just because adults are drinking alcohol at home, children should understand they can’t automatically do the same.
Tactics to get talking
Take it a step at a time
Finding the right balance between protecting your child and giving them freedom isn’t easy. You can’t be by their side all the time, and they wouldn’t thank you for it anyway.
However, with communication and trust, you can help them to make the right decision in a tricky situation, learn from their mistakes, come to you for advice when needed and still stay safe.
Making a few small changes can make a big difference – but don’t expect success overnight. Just take it one step at a time.
Recognise that neither you nor your child will always get it right. What works for one child or one set of circumstances may not work for another. Take the view that mistakes (yours and theirs) are inevitable, and the important thing is to learn from them.
Know your child
Get to know your child as an individual. Do you really know what they like and dislike – about themselves or the world around them? What would they change about their life (or you!) if they could?
Take the time to ask them, and to really listen to their answers. You may find you don’t know them as well as you think you do; and they will feel that their opinions really matter.
Create a bond
When children feel a valued member of a stable group, they may be more likely to stick to the agreed rules. Give your child a sense of belonging by doing things together – finding out what they enjoy, cooking up a treat, getting out and about as a family.
Establishing some routines means you can spend some time together, gives more opportunities for you to talk to each other, and helps your child to feel they can come to you if they have a problem.
Make them feel respected
It may seem obvious, but letting your child know they’re respected often gets overlooked in busy lives. Your child’s opinions matter and they should feel they can express their views in a supportive environment. Let them know in good time of any changes that will affect them, and let them know you’re proud of them too. If their friends get into trouble and your child wasn’t involved, say how proud you are that they acted so maturely.
It’s important that children know the ground rules, and the consequences of not sticking to them. They will test them, so don’t make threats you’re not prepared to carry out. An effective ‘punishment’ is to remove privileges – a planned trip to the cinema, having friends over, watching TV.
But don’t forget to praise them when they do the right thing. Giving reasons for the rules helps children to stick to them and develops a sense of responsibility. Knowing who they’re with and when they’ll be back is important for their safety, and not just your sanity.
Trusting your child means they’ll feel they can tell you the truth (especially about unacceptable or risky things), and you won’t get angry or judge them. Being willing to listen to their side of the story, and talking through the other options, will help them to make sensible choices in the future.
Trust is essential to open and honest communication. If your child feels safe discussing difficult issues with you, then they’ll talk to you when they need to and listen to what you have to say.
Make sure they’re informed
Children are often much more informed than we realise – but they don’t always know the facts. Whatever the issue, make sure your child has the right information, and knows where to go if they want to find out more.
Try to avoid lecturing or scare tactics, and instead discuss the pros and cons objectively together. Use language your child understands and examples that are relevant to them, and encourage them to share their views too.
Show how it’s done
As the parent or carer, don’t underestimate the influence of your own actions, attitudes, words and choices. These have a huge impact on your child’s behaviour. Consider what message your example gives to your child. It’s difficult to encourage them to make sensible decisions if they don’t have a good role model!
Practical ways of delaying teenage drinking:
- Make sure you know the facts and laws about alcohol and can talk in a balanced and constructive way.
- Talk and listen to your teenager. It is important that they hear your views and that you hear theirs.
- Have family rules, discuss them with all members, and be clear about what is allowed and not allowed and have consequences for breaking rules and enforce them.
- If your teenager is going to a party drop them off and pick them up. Agree the time they will be leaving the party. Confer with the host parents about supervision and their plans.
- Be careful where you leave alcohol in the house. Know how much you have and check it regularly. If you are away for the night it is unfair to your teenagers to leave them in a situation where they have access to a large supply of drink.
- Supervise parties at home and always serve food. Ensure there is adult supervision of parties in friends’ homes.
- Understand the pressure’s they’re facing from peers and wanting to fit in. Don’t fly off the handle if you discover they’ve been drinking, talk it through and explain the risks they are taking.
When they are heading out make sure:
- They have eaten a good meal
- Tell them to keep their mobiles on and to call if there are any problems
- Drop them off and pick them up
- Remind them to never
- Leave their drink as it could be spiked
- Drink and drive
- Take a lift from someone they suspect has taken drink or drugs
- Leave on their own.