Separated parents with different views on alcohol: What can you do?

We know that parents are an incredibly important influence on their child's views around alcohol and when they set their minds to it they can make a real difference when it comes to their alcohol consumption. Read any parenting book and it will tell you that the key to success in any area is that there needs to be a consistent message on the issue. This is certainly the case with alcohol. It is quite clear that if a young person gets mixed messages from his parents then it's going to be far more difficult for him/her to develop positive attitudes towards alcohol.

Parents, if at all possible, must try to work out the rules and boundaries they both think are appropriate, as well as the consequences if these are broken. It is important that once the rules and boundaries are agreed on, that neither party 'gives in'. If there are differences of opinion regarding the provision of alcohol, these differences and each parent's expectations should be openly discussed, without placing the child in the position of conflict.

There are a number of reasons why one set of parents may have different views on the role alcohol should play in their teen's life. It could have to do with their cultural background, their involvement in team sports or a family history of alcohol problems, including dependence. Whatever the reason for the difference it can cause real problems for a family and it is important to try and deal with the issue as quickly as possible.

In broken relationships this may be even more difficult, as one parent is often forced to play the 'bad cop' role and parent their teen around alcohol, while the other is reluctant to enforce rules with their child fearing that this may jeopardize the relationship.

Last week I met with Ruth, a mother who were experiencing exactly this problem.

Ruth's marriage had broken down and she had her two children during the week and her ex-husband (a 'fly-in fly-out' father who worked on the mines) had them over the weekends that he was in town. She was finding it extremely difficult to control her teens (a 15 and 16 year old) when it came to alcohol and partying because when her husband was in town and supervising them, there were no rules. He wanted to be their 'best friend' and would buy them and their friends alcohol and could see no problems with this behaviour. Ruth was seen as being old-fashioned in her attitude towards alcohol by her husband and had made this clear not only to his ex-wife, but also to his children. She was being constantly undermined and had no idea where to turn next.

This is not an isolated case. There are parents across the country who deal with this issue every weekend.

As much as you may want your child to be your 'best friend' (really, if you do - what is wrong with you?), it is far more important to be a parent. Remember, your child gets one set of parents; they will get the opportunity to make many friends. There are many other ways of maintaining a positive relationship with a child rather than 'giving in' and providing them alcohol at an early age.

I wish I had a simple answer to this problem but when a marriage breaks down things are never going to be easy. That said, here are my three simple tips that may assist:

Get your facts together:  Before you take on your partner on the alcohol issue, ensure you've got your facts together so it's not an emotional tirade – a shouting match will not lead to a positive outcome. Arm yourself with good information that supports the reasons why teens shouldn't be drinking – attacking their parenting, or even worse, their own drinking behaviour is not going to go down well!

Discuss this away from the kids: Let's hope that it doesn't turn into an argument, but you can never be sure what will happen, so have the discussion away from your children. Do it when they're in bed or away from the house and choose your time carefully. Once again, set out your argument about damage to bodies and brains and also the fact that early introduction to alcohol is linked to alcohol problems later in life. Keep remembering – take out the personal stuff – that's never going to work ... 

Seek professional help: If you can't get agreement then it's a big enough issue to arrange relationship counselling, either via your GP, the local Family Relationship Centre, or a local qualified counsellor.

We now know so much more about the impact of alcohol on the adolescent than we did previously, particularly in regards to brain development. The research is clear that teens who drink are more likely to have long-term problems with alcohol. The very clear message that needs to be communicated to all parents is delay introduction to alcohol as long as possible.


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