As a responsible parent, you think introducing moderate drinking practices early on is a sensible solution to under-age binge-drinking.
You may not be breaking any laws in NSW — parents and legal guardians can supply their underage child with alcohol in a private setting as long as it’s in a responsible manner.
But experts agree letting a child under 18 drink — or even sip — alcohol should be avoided or delayed for as long as possible.
The National Health and Medical Research Council National Guidelines state children under 15 should not drink at all, as they are at the greatest risk of harm. And those aged 15 to 17 should delay drinking as long as possible.
Studies show the most dramatic changes occur in the brain during the teenage years; in fact the brain does not stop developing until the age of 25.
And alcohol disrupts this very important developmental phase, particularly in the brain’s frontal lobe and hippocampus, the areas associated with motivation, impulse control and addiction.
Thankfully, the message is getting through, says Paul Dillon of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA).
Dillon says what is even more encouraging is the number of 17-year-olds who have never tried alcohol, a figure that has grown from 9.1 per cent in 2011 to 13.1 per cent in 2014.
“Parents should be really heartened by these figures,” Dillon says.
“We live in a world where we tend to focus on the things teenagers do wrong but, as these figures show, a very large chunk of kids are doing the right thing.”
Dillon says there are several reasons why underage drinking has dropped, not just in Australia, but across the world.
Firstly, parents are getting the message that delaying the age kids have their first drink is critical and, secondly, kids are aware of the implications of embarrassing images ending up on social media.
People who drink too much are also publicly mocked and humiliated. Think of embarrassing media images of Melbourne Cup overindulgence or sportspeople caught behaving badly after a big night out.
“There’s also been a big change in the perception of non-drinkers among their own peers,” Dillon adds.
“It used to be that the person who didn’t drink was the dag or the uncool kid, but going into schools to talk to kids, I’m now noticing those who choose not to drink are looked upon as a valuable member of the group. They’re affectionately labelled ‘my nondrinking friend’ rather than teased about it.”
John Scott, whose social change organisation Drinkwise was behind the advertising campaign that portrayed drinking as a generational development, says parents sometimes receive mixed messages when it comes to how to manage alcohol and their kids.
“A lot of parents think ‘I would prefer to teach my child to drink moderately at home before they go out at 18,” which is a rational argument,” Scott says.
“And we’re not wagging the finger at parents and asking them to tell their kids not to drink, full stop. That’s an unrealistic approach and a sure way to turn kids away.
“But what we are asking parents to do is to delay the age their kids start drinking as much as possible. The reality is, we know more now than we ever did about the effects of alcohol on the developing brain and the overriding message is that no amount of alcohol under the age of 18 is safe.
“It’s up to parents to model good behaviour and have those conversations early enough with their children.”
Dillon says parents still have a mistaken view that drug use among kids is unacceptable but alcohol is a rite of passage. But every weekend in Australia, we lose someone aged 14 to 17 to an alcohol-associated death.
“Parents should think of it like this: If you get the alcohol lesson right, then the positive message around illicit drug use will likely follow.
“Studies show that the child who has just a sip at 10 is drinking in a riskier way at 15 than the kid who didn’t have that sip at all.
“The reality for parents is that they are never going to stop their child drinking if that child wants to drink, but they can delay the age of initiation by making it bloody hard for them to do it.”
A new study by the University of NSW, which followed 2000 children for four years, found those who were given alcohol by their parents were more likely to be drinking full serves of alcohol at 15 and 16.
“Given that children supplied alcohol by their parents were twice as likely to be drinking full serves a year later as their peers who were not given alcohol by their parents, the results suggest that parents who supply alcohol, even with the best intentions, are likely to accelerate their child’s drinking and be laying down the potential for future harms,” lead author of the study Professor Richard Mattick says.
“We’re aware that early initiation of drinking is strongly associated with later alcohol use problems; delay is the best strategy.”
Adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg says parents should start talking to children about alcohol by the start of high school, sooner if a child has a “sensation-seeker” temperament.
“Evidence shows meaningful conversations about alcohol between parents and their children can help the child develop a sensible relationship with drink,” Carr-Gregg says.
“You don’t have to cover everything at once; you’re more likely to have a greater impact on your child’s decisions about drinking if you have a number of chats.
“Think of it as part of an ongoing conversation. Remember, use what you feel comfortable with and adapt the advice to your own parenting style. Use stories in the media as a conversation starter.”
Modelling responsible consumption of alcohol in association with a meal remains a parents’ best approach to prevent unhealthy binge drinking, Carr-Gregg says.
“Set rules and have clear consequences which are enforced every time.”
This piece was first seen on ‘The Daily Telegraph’ January 27, 2017.