Alcohol use among teenagers appears to be waning, but with health risks high, it is still important that parents do everything possible to delay the age at which their children start drinking
Alcohol use by teenagers in Ireland has decreased over the last number of years. Survey data, reported by the Health Research Board (HRB) last year, shows that the age at which teenagers first drink alcohol has gone up and more teenagers are abstaining from alcohol. These are really welcome trends.
Researchers have explored why these trends are occurring. They postulate that there are two main reasons: one relates to the availability and accessibility of alcohol and the second relates to the cultural acceptance (or otherwise) of teenage alcohol use. Essentially, the suggestion is that adolescent drinking has been de-normalised and non-drinking has become normalised. However, if you are the parent of a teenager, you’d be forgiven for thinking that teenagers drinking is still very normalised here in Ireland.
Despite the downward trend in alcohol use, the same HRB overview still notes that 50pc of all 15-year-olds have drunk alcohol. This increases to 76pc of 16-year-olds and 82pc of 17-year-olds. So, before they reach the legal age, at least four in every five teenagers have drunk alcohol.
Most parents, therefore, have to deal with the issue of alcohol and their teenager’s use of it. Because there are such strong cultural associations with drinking alcohol in Ireland, and because most Irish adults also drink, lots of parents feel very hypocritical when talking with their sons or daughters about it. Many parents may also feel unable to take a hard line with their teenagers because of their own ambivalence towards alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, one of the factors that makes it more likely that teenagers will drink early in their adolescence is a perception that their parents are permissive. Research consistently shows that a less restrictive attitude from parents is not only associated with early drinking but is also associated with more frequent drinking by teenagers and with more teenage drunkenness. Parents who are accepting that their teenager will drink, and so say things like, “if you are going to drink then drink here in the house where I know you’ll be safer”, may be doing their son or daughter a disservice.
It seems that teenagers do need to get a consistent message about abstaining from alcohol and that we don’t weaken in our resolve to stick with this plan. Alcohol is a dangerous substance. Many Irish parents will have been surprised by the new Canadian Guidance on Alcohol and Health, which got reported on over here, which concluded that it is only safe to drink two standard alcoholic drinks per week. Here are some of their other conclusions from their review and analysis of the global research on alcohol use:
All levels of alcohol consumption are associated with some risk, so drinking less is better for everyone.
On any occasion, any level of consumption has risks, and with more than two standard drinks, most individuals will have an increased risk of injuries or other problems.
Disproportionately more injuries, violence and deaths result from men’s drinking.
Above low levels of alcohol consumption, the health risks increase more steeply for women than for men.
As parents, then, we do have to actively prevent our children from drinking alcohol at a young age, and we must give the message that their teenage alcohol use is unacceptable to us. Making it hard for them to have the opportunity to drink and letting them know of our disapproval may well delay their first alcoholic drink.
The statistics, however, are stark and so we must also all be realists and acknowledge that the day will probably come when we do discover that they have been drinking or have been drunk. That is a “genie out of the bottle moment”, inasmuch as once they have been drinking alcohol they are unlikely to return to being non-drinking.
That means that we must engage with them about alcohol in a completely different way, to open up conversations about safer levels of drinking, both in terms of how they consume alcohol and the risks for them and their friends when they are drinking alcohol. This is a big shift for parents. Try to avoid shaming them for being drunk, as this will only make it more likely that they will hide their drinking from you.
If you want to keep the lines of communication open, then continue to practise what you preach about alcohol, role-modelling moderate and considered alcohol use yourself, while talking non-judgementally to your teenager about what they need to do to be safer and healthier.
It’s unlikely that you, or they, will adhere to the Canadian guidelines, but it would be great to think that a continued shift in attitudes might mean that their children or grandchildren might come to see alcohol as the real danger that it is.