Talking to teens about alcohol

The proportion of teenagers
drinking is falling, according to a UK report, but those who are drinking are
doing it with a vengeance. Among the half of girls under 15 who say they drink,
the average intake is the equivalent of six glasses of wine (just over 11
units) a week. Boys (again of the half who say they drink) have an average of
11.9 units a week.

No one wants to think of their
teenage son or daughter getting drunk and disorderly or in danger, but what can
you do to stop it happening?

What age should you talk to them?

Surveys show that attitudes to
drinking change at the age of 13, which is around the average time for children
to have their first alcoholic drink. So if you wait until mid-teens the moment
will have passed. Start talking about alcohol when your child is 11 or 12.

The UK Chief Medical Office
recommends that children shouldn’t drink until they are 15. Between 15 and 17,
the guidelines are for supervised drinking with adults, on no more than one day
a week. (In the UK, from the age of 16 you can buy your child cider, beer or
wine in a pub or restaurant if they eat with you.)

There’s evidence that the younger a
child is when they start drinking (especially under 15) the more likely they
are to have alcohol-related problems later in life – such as accidents while
under the influence, drink-driving, and absences from work due to hangovers.

What are the dangers of teenage drinking?

Teenagers who drink are at risk of
alcohol-related accidents; being assaulted or starting a fight; having sex
(especially unsafe sex) with people they wouldn’t normally have sex with;
drinking and driving (or being in a car driven by a drunk driver); being
robbed; getting a criminal record; and becoming ill from too much alcohol.

There is some evidence that people
are getting cirrhosis of the liver earlier because of the rise in heavy
drinking in some young people.

What should you say?

Don’t say: “Just don’t drink – it
will harm/kill you” because it won’t work. It’s not like telling a child to go
to bed – it requires (sigh) a conversation. You need to equip your teenager
with the information to make sensible decisions because without that he or she
will struggle to resist the peer pressure to glug down some alco-pops at the
next birthday party.

Parents are hugely influential –
heavy drinkers have children who drink more – so watch your own intake.
Children need to see your attitude to alcohol is as sensible as the messages
you’re giving them.

So don’t binge drink yourself and
collapse on the sofa.

Tell your children that drinking
can do more damage to their growing bodies than to those of an adult, so they
shouldn’t really be drinking at all. Explain about the alcohol content of
drinks – they may not know they vary or the difference between wine and
spirits. Tell them about units and that they shouldn’t go above two to three a
day when they are 18.

Warn about the risks of going off
with strangers, getting into fights, unsafe sex and drink driving and the signs
of becoming ill after drinking too much alcohol.

Urge them to eat when they drink
and to alternate alcohol with water or juice. Encourage them to stay with
friends if they are drinking and to keep enough money for a taxi and always to
use a number of a firm you know. It is best if they do not take drinks from
strangers or get half drunk before they go out to a party. Since most of the
alcohol teenagers drink comes from their home you may want to hide your drinks

Tell them what to do if they get
into trouble (call you – make sure they leave their mobile on) or if a friend
becomes unwell (put them into the recovery position, make sure they can
breathe, don’t leave them, call for an ambulance) and if they vomit, however horrible
it may be, make sure they can still breathe.

When your teenagers go off to
college it is worth reinforcing the safety messages even if they don’t seem to
be listening. If your child does come home drunk it may be better not to shout
at them, but to calmly reinforce the risks of drinking and then ground them for
a month.

Anything else you should do?

Know where your teenager
is going and who they are going with. If you can, drop your teenager off at
parties and collect them – even if it means hiding your car round the corner.

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