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Why are parents now even more likely to be the most common source of alcohol for teens?

The 2017 Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug Survey (ASSAD) report was recently released. This presents information on the use of tobacco, alcohol, over-the-counter drugs (for non-medicinal purposes), and other substances in school students aged 12 to 17 in Australia. Around 20,000 students from public, Catholic and independent schools from across the country participated in the survey and it provides a great insight into what is currently happening in relation to alcohol and other drug use and school-based young people.

There are lots of positives in this report, particularly around tobacco and alcohol. Fewer students are smoking and, those who do, smoke fewer cigarettes. The number of 12-17-year-olds who reported never drinking alcohol increased once again to more than one third (34%), up from only one in ten in 1999. Students were asked to select the most appropriate description of their drinking behaviour, with around 70% seeing themselves as ‘non-drinkers’. Not surprisingly, the proportion was lower among older than younger students but, even so, 63% of 15-year-olds classified themselves in this way, as did more than one third (37%) of 17-year-olds.

One finding did surprise me, however, with 43% of current drinkers (those who drank in the previous week) reporting that the source of their last alcoholic drink was their parents. This was by far the most common source with ‘friend’ being the next most likely (25%), ‘someone else bought’ (12%), siblings (8%) and 7% reporting that they took it from home. Between 2002 and 2011 we saw a steady decline in reported parental supply of alcohol according to the ASSAD survey, but since then we have seen it increasing, now at its highest level for many years. At a time when parents are far more aware of the importance of delaying their child’s first drink of alcohol for as long as possible, why are we seeing growing numbers making the decision to provide alcohol to their teen?

It does need to be made clear that the report does not make clear in what context those current drinkers were consuming alcohol, i.e., parents, particularly of the younger teens, could have been providing a drink with a meal in a family context. It also doesn’t provide information on how much alcohol was provided or consumed. Nevertheless, to see this increase over the past few years is of concern and illustrates the dilemma many parents face in this area.

Firstly, there are no ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ as far as parenting around this issue is concerned. That said, some parental behaviour is truly bizarre in my opinion, but as I’ve said many times before, no-one can tell you how to raise your child and as long as you believe what you are doing is right and you feel comfortable with your decision, then go for it! The most important thing is that you make your rules around alcohol and parties based on the best possible information you can find and that you are not bullied into doing something based on what another parent says or what your child tells you other people do … Most importantly never impose your beliefs in this area onto other parents. If you believe giving your teen a glass of wine at a family function is appropriate, that’s fine – but don’t ridicule others at the event for making the decision not to allow the same behaviour.

It’s worth noting again that parents have it really tough when it comes to navigating through this complex issue. The evidence is confusing to say the least, with four basic messages acknowledged as important for parents to consider:

  • Delay, delay, delay – try to delay their first drink of alcohol for as long as possible
  • If a teen is to drink, ensure their first drink of alcohol is with you in a controlled environment
  • If a teen believes their parent approves of teen drinking they’re more likely to drink
  • If teens obtain alcohol from sources other than their parents, they’re more likely to drink in a risky way

What we are telling parents, therefore, is that you should never give a young person alcohol (due to impact on brain development), but, in fact, you have to give it to them (in your home preferably) before they drink it anywhere else. If you do give it to them, however, this could indicate that you approve of their drinking leading to potential drinking problems in the future. In addition, you certainly don’t want them to get alcohol from other sources when they go to a party or gathering as the research says that if they do they’re at greater risk! One statement seems to contradict the next and it ends up being totally confusing!

In addition, Australian research released last year provided two extra messages that ‘muddy the waters’ even more. They are as follows:

  • Parental supply of alcohol provides no benefit or protective effect
  • Parental supply is associated with increased risk of other supply, i.e., give them alcohol and they are likely to drink more from other sources

I would hope that most of the parents who make the decision to provide their child alcohol are doing it for the ‘right reasons’, i.e., to teach them ‘responsible drinking’ and/or to protect them. They’re doing what they’re doing because they believe it what is right for their child and that’s the best anyone can do. The idea of ‘teaching a child to drink responsibly’, however, really makes little sense. Teens learn from you and start modelling your behaviour from a very early age, so whether you drink with them, around them or even away from them they’ll be watching. You certainly don’t need to sit with them and ‘teach’ them how to drink in a responsible way – they’ve been picking up how you and your partner (and the rest of your family and friends) drink alcohol for years. Other research has found that transplanting the so-called ‘Mediterranean Model’ (providing a little bit of alcohol with a meal in the home) across to an Australian context is not protective. In fact, drinking (even small amounts) with your son or daughter is instead likely to send them the message that you condone and support their drinking at an early age, as a result, the positive messages you wanted to get across are often lost.

Delaying your child’s first drink for as long as possible is still the best message for parents as the research is clear that the younger the child is introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a range of problems, including dependence later in life. Researchers have long known that the age at which a person starts drinking or taking drugs is a good predictor of whether or not he or she will have future problems, particularly dependence or addiction.

With all of that in mind, I believe the best way forward for any parent is to ‘follow your heart’ – I know that sounds so corny but it really is the best answer. I’m hoping that’s what the growing number of parents who are providing their teens with alcohol are doing and they’re not simply bowing to pressure from their child. If you truly believe that allowing your teen to have a drink at home in a controlled setting is appropriate for your family situation and that they will get something positive from that experience, that’s what you should do. My only suggestion is that if you do, try and delay it for as long as possible and at the same time, ensure rules and boundaries are discussed and established around alcohol and parties.

One thing is clear and that is simply providing your teen with alcohol, no matter how controlled, is not protective. You’ve got to decide what works for your family but if you think that giving your child two drinks to take to a party is going to somehow protect them from drinking in a risky manner that night or anytime in the future, that is not only naïve but dangerous.

Guerin, N. & White, V. (2018). ASSAD 2017 Statistics Trends: Australian Secondary Students’ Use of Tobacco, Alcohol, Over-the-counter Drugs, and Illicit Substances. Cancer Council Victoria.
Mattick, R. P., Clare, P. J., Aiken, A., Wadolowski, M., Hutchinson, D., Najman, J., Slade, T., Bruno, R., McBride, N., Kypri, K., Vogl, L., & Degenhardt, L. (2018). Association of parental supply of alcohol with adolescent drinking, alcohol-related harms, and alcohol use disorder symptoms: a prospective cohort study. Lancet, published Online January 25, 2018 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S2468-2667(17)30240-2.

Published: March 2019

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