Bobby Smyth: 'Parents, don't teach underage kids how to drink'
Psychiatrist Bobby Smyth is clear that alcohol and youngsters are a dangerous mix and offers guidelines on how to tackle the issue
Teenagers and young adults are programmed to charge forward into life and not look around themselves so much. Their brains are going through a major upgrade at this time in their lives, but the brain's accelerator develops faster than its braking system.
When adults drink, they tend to be disinhibited and impulsive, prioritising the moment over the future. But teenagers are like this even when they're sober, so when you add alcohol to the mix, life can get very messy for them.
Adolescents are essentially apprentice adults, so for now, they're still learning the skills and developing their experience to manage the full range of adult challenges.
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Alcohol is harmful to the brain, especially those that are still developing. Drinking can also make a bad mood worse, and is closely linked to suicide and self harm. Teenagers who drink are more likely to injure themselves, be it in an accident, hurt someone else, or be hurt - and if they mess up, every other teenager around them is likely to know about it within hours on social media.
Apprentice adults need older adults to provide a scaffolding around them, actively guiding them along. This is where parents, relatives, teachers, sports coaches and so on, all come in. But be in no doubt, parents exert the biggest single influence on their children - even though it mightn't always feel like it.
As a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have met a lot parents about this over the years, and have read a great deal about what works and what doesn't. In the main, I have six pieces of practical advice for parents to protect their children from alcohol and other drugs.
1 Build a close relationship
Having a close relationship with your child is so important. This obviously starts young, but it's never too late. It can feel tough to find ways to stay close to your child at a time when it may feel like they're pushing you away, but feeling loved and connected makes a massive difference to them.
Keep making an effort; show an interest in all aspects of their lives; try to listen more than you talk; be supportive and encouraging by making time for them. I recommend Alcohol and Drugs: A Parent's Guide from the HSE's website, askaboutalcohol.ie. It has practical advice for getting these conversations started, and how to really listen.
Of course, you need to remember that you are a parent, not a friend, which leads me to my next point.
2 Set boundaries and stick to them
While it is the less popular side of parenting, children understand rules. They expect them, and they need them. While they don't always choose to obey your rules all of the time, there is no mystery to their influence. You don't kick your sister, you don't curse at your granny, you don't drive until you have a licence. And you don't drink until you are 18.
Denying permission to drink, like denying permission to kick their sister, does not of course guarantee that the behaviour is avoided, but it does tend to keep a lid on it. Knowing that they may bend the rules doesn't mean you shouldn't have any.
And my most important rule of all…
3 Don't give alcohol to children under 18
There is an urban myth that Mediterranean cultures all give their kids drink and they all consequently grow up to have a restrained relationship with alcohol.
Children are not routinely given alcohol in those cultures. There is a cultural disapproval of being drunk in these cultures, which is not something that exists here in Ireland. Children are much better off delaying drinking, like driving, to adulthood, when they have developed the necessary skills and resilience.
Two secondary school students from Cork won the BT Young Scientist and Technology award in 2015 with a really nice study of teenagers and their parents. Their findings reflect those from lots of other research - they found that adolescents who had received permission to drink 'just on special occasions' experienced more alcohol-related harm that teenagers who lived in families where they had no permission to drink. Teenagers who get the thumbs up from parents tend to give themselves greater permission to drink more than their peers.
4 Know what they're doing
Get to know their friends and check, as best you can, that your kids are where they say they are. Actively support their involvement in hobbies and sports.
Expect them to stay in touch when they are out.
It's also a good idea to keep yourself informed of the world your children live in. While you would never guess it from our media coverage of the moment, we are currently in the midst of a pretty dreadful epidemic of cannabis addiction. Work on the assumption that your teenager is going to be offered drugs like cocaine and cannabis at some point, and arm yourself with information. Alcohol and drugs are much more dangerous if you do not know what is going on.
5 If you drink, set a good example by taking a low-risk approach
In addition to thinking about how you parent, it is also worth thinking about how you drink. The more you drink, the more likely it is that your children will drink in a problematic manner.
How you talk about drinking is so important. Please, please, please do not come home from work to your eight-year-old and your 16-year-old announcing: "I've had a terrible day at work, so I've got to open a bottle of wine." Both will then assume that this is how people should deal with stress.
Also be mindful of engaging in 'war stories' about your own youthful drinking in front of your children, no matter what their age. If your mates or siblings start taking conversation down such a path, quietly get them to stop.
You could try the drinks calculator on askaboutalcohol.ie to find out how your own drinking is impacting your health and family. Most of us underestimate our drinking.
6 Talk about alcohol and other drugs
As apprentice adults, this is your teenager's first go at life. They need you, as parent, to be there to give them a steer. This means having conversations about these topics.
During those chats, you make it absolutely clear what your expectations are (this is much more powerful when mum and dad agree in advance). You also make it clear that you set limits because you love them and want the best for them, and their future.
You may be blessed with a very wise and sensible teenager, one who you trust implicitly.
Please avoid the temptation to let them drink. While they may well manage this very well, it does make it so much harder for the rest of us, with more average teens, to hold a line.
If your teenager is one of those who really struggles to recognise their duty to look after their own future, then you are going to have to work much harder than other parents. If they are making bad choices with the freedoms you are giving them, then you will have to rein those in.
Reasons to be hopeful
There is reason to be hopeful about this issue. After years of hand-wringing by their predecessors, our politicians have recently passed the Public Health (Alcohol) Act, finally recognising alcohol as a health issue, not just a revenue stream. Parents now need to follow up on this by building their expectation that childhood, right through adolescence, is alcohol- and drug-free.
Iceland should be an inspiration to us. They had the most drunken teenagers in Europe in the 1990s, and they now have the least. They achieved this through a suite of measures across government policy, community, school, sports clubs and family. We are hopefully now at the beginning of the same path, together.
Consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Bobby Smyth has led three HSE adolescent addiction services in Dublin. You can find advice on setting boundaries, having open conversations, building resilience and talking to your teenager about alcohol and drugs in the HSE's 'Alcohol and Drugs: A Parent's Guide', available to download or order free of charge from www.askaboutalcohol.ie/parents