Should we allow our teens drink at home?
Irish teens drink too often and too much, but are their parents to blame, wonders Clint Witchalls
At 10 years old, my parents tried the Continental approach to teaching me and my siblings about alcohol. I remember it clearly . . . then not so clearly.
My parents gave me, my brother and my sister a glass of wine with our Sunday lunch. It tasted pretty disgusting. Corked, I'm sure. After the meal, we headed for the garden.
"Look at me, I'm drunk," I said, staggering across the lawn. We bumped into each other, faux-slurring, like we'd seen adults do when they'd had too much to drink. We didn't feel tipsy enough, though, so we spun around and around until we fell down.
My parents clocked this spectacle and ended the experiment, I couldn't look at white wine for a long time after that without feeling ill.
By my early teens, the list of drinks that made me sick included: Old Brown Sherry, Clubman Mint Punch, Vin Coco, Coco Rico and Castello Ginger Fizz (don't ask). But I persevered, getting drunk on every cheap, sweet alcoholic drink pocket money could buy.
Despite the Sunday afternoon fiasco, my parents remained liberal about underage drinking, even though my mother was -- and still is -- almost teetotal. For example, I recall going to the pub with my parents before a school prize-giving. I must have reeked of beer when I accepted the Shield for Progress.
Given the heavy boozing in my adolescent years -- and the evidence from scientific research -- I should now be an alcoholic with mental health problems, low educational attainment and a criminal record. But I'm not.
I still drink, only more sensibly. Do I set a good example for my children? I think so. Probably. Is two bottles of wine a week a bad example?
Like my parents, I take a laid-back approach to alcohol with my daughter, now 20, and my son, who is 16 years old.
Luckily for me, they're much more sensible than I was. Not once have I had to clean up their alcohol-induced vomit. In fact, I've never seen them drunk. If they're 16 or older, I let my children have a beer at home. (It's legal to do that at home, as long as they're five years old or above.) A couple of weeks ago, my son asked me if he could have the one remaining beer in the fridge. I said yes. The beer is still there.
When my son visits his friends, their parents sometimes offer him a beer, as I occasionally do when their children visit. I wouldn't dream of offering a beer to one of my son's friends if I didn't know their parents or their attitude towards drinking alcohol.
A survey conducted by MBF Healthwatch in Australia found that most adults believe 15 to 17-year-olds should be allowed to consume alcohol under parental supervision at home. And the higher the parents' income, the more likely they are to allow drinking at home.
So, is this a more enlightened approach -- introducing small amounts of alcohol at a younger age? The Continental way seems to work for my children, even if not for me. I decided to ask someone from the Continent how parents there introduce drinking at home and at what age?
"I didn't drink alcohol until I was 19," says Alfonso Iglesias, a restaurant owner. Alfonso grew up in Gijon, a city in the north of Spain. "In Spain, parents are quite strict about their children drinking. At least they were when I was growing up. It's very rare to see a child of 15 or 16 having a glass of wine or a glass of beer. Parents allow children to be part of the socialising, but they are very strict when it comes to drinking."
"People may think that the Continental model -- if you want to call it that -- would suggest that children from Italy, Portugal and Greece have had at least one glass of beer, wine or spirits earlier than children in Ireland or England, but actually, it's not the case," says Professor Mark Bellis, an expert in public health.
The biggest survey of youth drinking in Europe is the Espad (European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs) and it has been conducted among 15- and 16-year-old teens every four years since 1995.
According to the most recent findings, Irish students are as likely to drink alcohol as the average European student (78pc had done so in the last year) but they get drunk more often. About half the students, 47pc, said that they had been drunk during the previous 12 months. More worryingly, 56pc of those surveyed said that they had drank in the last month.
What do we know about the long-term impacts of heavy drinking in adolescence? Jim McCambridge, a medical expert, reviewed the evidence and published his findings in PLoS Medicine earlier this year. He looked at 54 studies on the con- sequences of drinking in 15- to 19-year-olds.
"The strongest evidence we found was that heavier drinking in teenage years means you're likely to be drinking heavier later in life and it's more likely that you'll have problems with alcohol, including dependence," he says.
"But looking at other consequences of alcohol -- criminal offences, educational attainment, mental health -- the literature wasn't great. There's only a small quantity of high quality studies on which you can depend."
But, Professor Bellis says: "It's much easier to say, if you look at the alcohol consumption of 15- and 16-year-olds, how many of them get involved in violence or make sexual decisions they wouldn't have, or don't manage to get to school or forget things as a result of their alcohol consumption. In some studies we've done, three out of every 10 children that drink have been involved in alcohol-related violence and one in eight had alcohol-related sex that they later regretted."
I can warn my children about these dangers, but are they likely to listen? Haven't psychologists been telling us for years that peers have a much bigger influence on teenagers than parents?
It turns out it's true that parents have little influence when it comes to their teenage children trying alcohol, but they do have significant influence when it comes to heavy drinking.
A study by Brigham Young University in the US found that parenting style strongly and directly affects teens when it comes to heavy drinking -- defined as five or more drinks in a row.
The researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 people between the ages of 12 and 19 about their drinking habits and their relationship with their parents. The study found that "indulgent parents", the ones low on accountability and high on warmth, tripled the risk of their child participating in heavy drinking.
Apparently, the right style is to be high on warmth, high on accountability. This group had teenage offspring that were least prone to heavy drinking. Even strict parents did better than indulgent parents. Strict parents -- high on accountability, low on warmth -- more than doubled their teen's risk of heavy drinking.
I'm going to get rid of the beer at the bottom of the fridge. Then I'm going to give my son a hug.
For advice, visit www.spunout.ie or www.drinkaware.ie