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Supporting your child in their decision not to drink alcohol

Once in a while I will have a mum and a dad (it’s always both parents) come up to me after my Parent Information Evening concerned about their son (for some reason it’s nearly always a son). It often takes them a while to get to the point but finally they tell me that they’re becoming worried because their teen is 15 years of age and he’s not interested in alcohol. When I ask them why this would be a problem the answer is always the same – “Well, he won’t fit in will he?”

First of all, let me make it clear that I totally get where they’re coming from. As I state quite clearly, I don’t drink alcohol and never really have to any great extent. As a non-drinker I have found it more and more difficult over the years to find things to do with friends and family where alcohol is not firmly positioned at the core. As I always say, the only place I can think of where you can truly socialise without alcohol is an AA meeting and I have no real desire to go there! If I find it difficult at my age (and I do, much more difficult than it was in the past), how difficult must it be for our current generation of teens who are constantly bombarded with messages that to socialise you must have a drink firmly placed in your hand?

If you look at all of the data that is being released in the area of young Australians (particularly school-based young people) and alcohol it is evident that we have a growing number of adolescents that are choosing not to drink, not just reducing the amount they drink, but not drinking at all! I think there are a range of reasons for this – certainly the young people I meet who choose not to drink tell me that it could be due to them wanting as healthy a brain as possible, they have sporting goals they want to achieve or it may be as simple as that their parents don’t really drink and, as a result, they have made similar choices. Whatever the reason, this group of non-drinkers need their parents’ support if they choose this path and not be thought of as ‘social rejects’ who are never going to have any friends and will never be invited anywhere …

The reason I raise this is I met a wonderful young man this week who highlights this issue and the struggles that some young people have in this complex area.

When I met Jason last year he was a Year 10 student. He approached me after my presentation to let me know that he had made a decision not to drink as he simply couldn’t see the point to it. He didn’t like seeing adults who had been drinking too much and couldn’t understand why any young person would want to get to that point. I made it clear to him that not everyone drank to excess and some people drank alcohol responsibly but if he made a decision not to drink that was great! He asked me for some tips for going to social gatherings and still having a good time and not drinking and we had quite a long chat about the issues he may face in the future. This year he came up to speak to me again – he still was not interested in drinking but had been facing great pressure at home to ‘have a sip’. His father had told him that he should try a beer so that he could get used to the taste and ‘learn how to drink properly’. Jason finally tried the beer and hated it. He was now quite embarrassed as he didn’t finish off the glass that his father made him drink in front of him and wondered why he was unlike everyone else and couldn’t drink – was there something wrong with him?

I’m not too sure what Jason’s father was trying to do here. Was he actually trying to teach his son ‘how to drink properly’ or was he attempting to make sure that Jason was going to turn out to be a ‘real man’ who could have a drink with the boys when the need arose? Whichever it was the young man was having huge problems trying to work out what was wrong with him because alcohol was not a part of his life at this time … once again, all he wanted from me was an affirmation that a grown man could choose not to drink and still function socially.

There are basically three options that a young person (or anyone for that matter) has when it comes to alcohol. They can choose to drink to excess, drink as responsibly as they are able (acknowledging that there may be a slip-up here and there!) or they can choose not to drink at all. All are valid choices (with varying degrees of risk) but all too often parents will make huge statements like “everyone drinks” or “they’ll all drink at some time or another”, or an even bigger cop-out – “they’re just doing what we did!” that are just plain ridiculous! It needs to be said that these outrageous statements are usually made to justify bad parenting – they don’t really have the time or energy to fight with their teen about rules and boundaries around alcohol, so these types of throwaway lines justify that there wasn’t any point to trying to stop them drinking anyway. In actual fact, not everyone drinks, they won’t all do it at some time or another and I don’t know about you but I certainly didn’t take part in some of the riskier alcohol-related behaviour that we know is now occurring (albeit amongst a small number of young people)!

Your child learns so much about drinking from you. If you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm every time you go out to socialize with friends, you’re sending a very strong message to your children about the role alcohol plays in socializing. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not, you’re an adult and can do what you want. It’s just important to discuss this with your teen. It’s also vital to discuss the three options for drinking – ensuring that you highlight that ‘not drinking’ is a perfectly valid option. As I always say, if you have a strange relative like me who doesn’t drink, wheel them out occasionally and talk about them and their decisions around drinking with your teens – they need to know that adults can have a good time without alcohol and that if they choose not to drink they will not be a social outcast. It’s the least a parent can do for their child that has made this tough decision.

Published: September 2013

1 thought on “Supporting your child in their decision not to drink alcohol”

  1. Thank you for this article Paul. I enjoyed reading it. Alcohol has become such a normalised part of society, that if you don't drink you are somehow strange or there is the idea that you can't have fun without it. And sadly, many don't know how to have fun without it. I think it is amazing for these young people that you refer to in your article to be making the choice not to drink and this really needs to be encouraged. Recently, I went to a party, actually it was a masquerade ball, with 300 people. We all had the most amazing time, in fact it was THE best party I have ever been to…and not a drop of alcohol was in sight! We had an absolute ball! And the children that were there got to see and experience this…adults having so much fun, dancing, singing, etc with out any need for alcohol. Pretty cool I think.

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