Supporting a non-drinking teen

In 2010 I visited Broken Hill and delivered a presentations to a group of Year 10 students. A box was left at the front of the room and young people were encouraged to write down any questions, queries or concerns they had regarding the topics being discussed. One question stood out from all the others - it read as follows:

"I identify myself as a non-drinker. I really don’t like the taste and how it makes me feel but most of my friends drink and sometimes I drink just to fit in. What’s the best way to deal with my situation. I don’t want to be known as a loser …"

I kept the hand-written note for many years, using a copied version of it in many of my parent sessions and it highlights the pressure that young people can feel to drink alcohol when they socialise with their peers. Of course, that 'peer pressure' still exists (although I think it has reduced in recent times, but more about that later), but what happens when the pressure to drink comes from somewhere else? What happens when it comes from family members?

This week I had a Year 10 girl ask me for help with dealing with family members who were encouraging her to try alcohol. She told me that she had made a decision not to drink at the age of 8, mainly because she had an uncle who was an alcoholic and she had seen the devastating effect his drinking had had on those around him. She was adamant that she would not be changing her mind anytime soon. Some of her family seemingly found this impossible to accept and repeatedly tried to convince her that she would eventually choose to drink and regularly offered her alcohol just to show her what she was missing out on. These were not older cousins in their 20s, they were adults in their 40s. What could they possibly be thinking?

The social pressure to drink in this country is unbelievable and as a non-drinker I have found it increasingly difficult over the years to find things to do with friends and family where alcohol is not firmly positioned at the core. If I find it difficult at my age (and I do, much more difficult than it was in the past), how difficult must it be for our current generation of teens who are constantly bombarded with messages that to socialise you must have a drink firmly placed in your hand? When you add the pressure from family members to 'fit in' and avoid social exclusion, it is surprising that there are any teens who make the decision not to drink. What is so incredible is that if you look at the data around school-based young people and alcohol it is evident that we actually have a growing number of adolescents that are doing just that. We're not taking about just reducing the amount they drink, but not drinking at all! The figure that I love to quote is from the latest ASSAD survey and that is that in 1999, we had one in ten 12-17-year-olds who had never consumed alcohol, and that had risen to one in three in 2017. That is quite remarkable and represents a cultural change …

Sadly, many people see these figures and believe that it means that this is a group who have simply moved onto using illicit drugs. I don't believe that this is the case. These are teens who have never drunk alcohol - it would be truly bizarre to see a young person who has never consumed alcohol start their drug-using career by taking ecstasy/MDMA. Yes, we are seeing increasing rates of ecstasy use amongst school-based young people, but those teens who are taking ecstasy at 16 or 17 are most likely those who were drinking alcohol regularly at 14 or 15. Those who have never consumed alcohol are a completely different group.

I think there are a range of reasons for this cultural shift - certainly the young people I meet who choose not to drink tell me that it could be due to them wanting as healthy a brain as possible, they have sporting goals they want to achieve or it may be as simple as that their parents don't really drink and, as a result, they have made similar choices. Most importantly, however, I believe that non-drinking now has 'social value' amongst young people. The person who chooses not to drink is now regarded as an important and valued member of a social group (not a 'loser' as the young person described in the note discussed above) because they are the ones that look after the others. It's a trickle-down effect from the designated driver and is so powerful and something I see everyday at schools across the country. Whatever the reason for their choice, this group of non-drinkers need their parents' support and should not be thought of as 'social rejects' who are never going to have any friends and will never be invited anywhere …

There are basically three options that a young person (or anyone for that matter) has when it comes to alcohol. They can choose to drink to excess, drink as responsibly as they are able (acknowledging that there may be a slip-up here and there!) or they can choose not to drink at all. All are valid choices (with varying degrees of risk) but all too often parents will make huge statements like "everyone drinks" or "they will all drink at some time or another", or an even bigger cop-out - "they're just doing what we did!" that are just plain ridiculous! It needs to be said that these outrageous statements are usually made to justify lazy parenting, i.e., they don't have the time or energy to fight with their teen about rules and boundaries around alcohol, so these type of throwaway lines justify that there wasn't any point to trying to stop them drinking anyway.

It is vital that parents discuss all three types of drinking - ensuring that 'not drinking' is highlighted as a perfectly valid option. As I always say, if you have a strange relative like me who doesn't drink, wheel them out occasionally and talk about them and their decisions around drinking with your teens - they need to know that adults can have a good time without alcohol and that if they choose not to drink they will not be a social outcast. It's the least a parent can do for their child that has made this tough decision.

Of course, there will be many teens who do choose to drink and, at the very least, most parents want their child to make good decisions around alcohol. There are no guarantees in this area and you can't inoculate your teen around drinking, but here are four simple things you can do to help ensure they are likely to have healthy attitudes and values in this complex area:
  • be a positive role model – look at how you socialise with alcohol and talk about it. Your child learns so much about drinking from you. There's nothing wrong with having a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm every time you go out to socialize with friends, you're an adult and can do what you want. If you do drink, t's important to discuss how you drink and its role in your life with your teen, e.g., you don't drink and drive, you usually take alcohol out to drink with a meal, you always have a designated driver, etc 
  • promote positive norms - make sure you keep reinforcing the message that not everyone drinks alcohol and of those who do, most don't drink irresponsibly. Every time you see a media story discussing adolescents or young adults who are drinking in a dangerous way, ensure you highlight the fact that there are many others who are not involved in that activity
  • challenge misconceptions – 'not everyone does it' and it is possible to celebrate without alcohol but it is important for you to demonstrate this in a practical way. Occasionally decline a drink when you're at a social gathering with your teen or simply have a night out without taking a couple of bottles with you if you can manage it
  • make your views about teen alcohol and other drug use clear – if you don't support teen drinking say so and your reasons for this stand

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