Should you be 'teaching your child how to drink responsibly' and what does that realistically mean?

The school year has only just begun across most of the country and I am already being contacted by parents who are having issues with alcohol and parties. Almost all of those who have got in touch with me are doing their best to maintain the rules and boundaries they have set up to keep their teen as safe as possible but now find themselves really struggling, mainly due to other parents who are either providing alcohol at parties or simply choosing to 'turn a blind eye' to the issue. One particular phrase that I've now heard a couple of times is that these parents claim that when they provide alcohol to their teen in this way they are 'teaching their child to drink responsibly'.

One mum recently contacted me to tell me about a conversation she had with her daughter's best friend's mother over the Christmas break. This was someone she had known since their children were in kindergarten together, a woman she believed had very similar values to her. Their daughters have just started Year 9  …

Both of our daughters turn 14 in Term 1 and I mentioned that the girls had already been invited to a party in the first couple of weeks of the school year. She then let me know about a 'pre' she was planning to hold at her house before that event. When I asked her what she was planning to do for the girls at this 'pre' her response totally shocked me. "We'll let them have one pre-mixed drink before they go out," she said. When I told her that I wouldn't be letting my daughter have a drink she snapped back that I wasn't living in the 'real world'. I don't have any other children but she has another two that are quite a bit older and she said that her negative experiences with them had taught her the importance of teaching teens how to drink responsibly. She said that having a 'no drinking' rule just meant that it pushed the drinking underground and, as a result, it became far more problematic. She has had a bad time with one of the older girls who now has drug issues and I totally get that she wants to protect her youngest but I'm concerned about the pressure her views are going to put on me when it comes to my daughter. I don't want my 14-year-old to go a party and be provided alcohol but if I try to stop it from happening (particularly when it's her best friend hosting the event) I'm going to look like the bad guy as far as my daughter is concerned. 

This is not an unusual story, although I do have to say that first term 14-year-olds being provided pre-drinks by parents is a bit surprising … There have been many studies looking at the issue of 'parental provision' of alcohol and the influence it can have on the young person's future drinking behaviour. Some parents certainly believe they can 'socialise' their children by providing them with alcohol and a 'safe place' to drink, or that if they are around while their child drinks (e.g., at a family meal or special occasion), they are able to teach their child to drink more safely or responsibly. The most interesting aspect of parents' thought processes in this area is that they appear to be far more likely to be concerned about the possible short-term consequences than the long-term outcomes. The number of times I've heard parents justify supplying alcohol to very young women by claiming "Well at least I know what they're drinking. If I buy them the alcohol then it will stop others from tampering with the drink and prevent them from being spiked." Of course, no-one wants their child to have their drink spiked but there are lots of other ways of ensuring their safety in this area apart from buying them the actual drink. When you look at the evidence, the long-term impact of teen drinking on the brain well and truly outstrips most of the short-term risks but some parents seem to want to ignore that.

There are so many studies that have found that parents continue to believe providing alcohol to the children can be protective. For example, a 2012 US study of 1,050 pairs of mothers and primary school-aged children found that between 15% and 40% of mothers believed that allowing children to sip alcohol could be protective in the future. The reality is, however, that the available research simply does not support this and, in fact, it is doubtful whether it is even possible to 'teach' children to drink alcohol responsibly.

A 2014 research article provides a great overview of what we know about providing alcohol to adolescents. The authors reviewed 22 studies "in an effort to provide parents with science-based guidance" and developed the following five messages for parents:
  • allowing children to drink underage, even when supervised by parents, is always associated with a greater likelihood of drinking during adolescence over time
  • findings on direct parental supply were mixed - some found it to be risky and others found it to be protective 
  • adolescents who drink at home or in a family setting drink less compared with those who drink with their peers. Put simply, if they are going to drink you want them to be with you the first time they do and it is best if that happens in the home with a family meal
  • talking to children early about alcohol use expectations and having consistent rules are factors parents should consider
  • social hosting is never a good idea. Parents might believe they are keeping their children and their children’s friends safe by allowing them to drink in their home. This is not the case. Adolescents who attend parties where parents supply alcohol are at increased risk for heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-related problems, and drinking and driving 
In conclusion, the authors wrote the following:

"Debate continues to ensue regarding the risks and benefits of parents providing alcohol to underage drinkers, but, when parents provide alcohol to their children, parents are removing one more barrier to underage drinking … Until there is more substantial empirical support regarding parental provision of alcohol, parents should consider the literature on the risks related to early drinking (i.e., damage to the developing brain, risk for later AUD) and continue to discourage their children from drinking until they reach legal age."

I love that one line in the quote "removing one more barrier to underage drinking." So true and yet so often completely ignored by some parents.

Trying to challenge parental beliefs in this area can be really difficult and as I always say, you are the only person who can make decisions about what you do when it comes to your child. I am not being a 'wowser' or trying to stop anyone having a good time, it's that every year I get to meet young people who have had the most terrible things happen to them when they've gone out on a Saturday night and messed around with a product that they simply don't have the maturity or brain development to deal with. As I've said in the past, I challenge anyone to not change their views about giving alcohol to teens after speaking to a 15-year-old girl who tells you that she was sexually assaulted when drunk, usually after her parents gave her a couple of drinks to take to a party or she went to an event where alcohol was permitted or tolerated ... I can tell you, it's a game changer!

You have to make the decision about what you do around the provision of alcohol to your child. But make sure that whatever you do it is based on the best information possible. What we know is that it is not likely to be protective and does not necessarily teach them how to drink responsibly in the future. If you want to make sure they have healthy attitudes and values in this area, that's really simple to do - it's all about role modelling, they'll learn by watching you. You don't have to give them formal lessons - they've been picking up things from you since they were in the cot. This is never going to be easy but, as far as the research is concerned, the effort you put in now will be well worth it in the future.

References:
Jackson, C., Ennett, S. T., Dickinson, D. M., & Bowling, J. M. (2012). Letting children sip: Understanding why parents allow alcohol use by elementary school-aged children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 166, 1053–1057.

Kaynak, O., Winters, K., Cacciola, J., Kirby, K., & Arria, A. (2014). Providing alcohol for underage youths: What messages should we be sending parents? Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 75, 590-605.

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