No-one can tell a parent how to deal with the alcohol issue when it comes to their children. Your child is precious to you and only you can make decisions about how to handle the ‘if they drink, when and how many’ questions. If you believe that providing alcohol to your child is appropriate and that, in doing so, you’re keeping them safer and they’re learning how to drink responsibly, that’s your business and no-one else’s. The problem I have is when parents impose their values on others and invite other people’s children to events where alcohol will either be provided, permitted or tolerated. This puts those parents who don’t feel comfortable with their teen drinking in a very difficult position and that’s incredibly unfair. That said, I think there are some extremely well-meaning parents who are trying to do the right thing when they provide alcohol to their teen who simply have no idea about how much they’re actually handing over.
I recently visited a school and after my Year 12 presentation a number of young people came up to me wanting to ask me questions. I was finally left with two young men, both aged 17, who were obviously friends. One had already asked his question but stayed around to support his mate who wanted some advice and his question went something like this – “When I go out to a party and there’s alcohol available I find it really difficult to stop at just one. If there’s a carton of anything, I’ll start with a can or a bottle and have every intention to stop after I’ve had that. I don’t understand why, but I find that incredibly difficult to do. I keep going back and sometimes drink an entire carton, often making myself feel sick in the process. In my head, I want to stop – I know what’ll happen if I keep drinking – but I almost can’t stop myself. What should I do?”
I asked him whether he drank during the week (he didn’t), whether he thought about alcohol or drinking at any other time (he didn’t) and some other questions to try to determine whether he have a ‘problem’, but it sounded more likely to be a lack of self-control than anything else. He was also one of those young people who simply didn’t feel comfortable in a social situation without a drink in his hand. I then gave him a couple of ideas as to how he could slow his drinking down and asked him if he’d spoken to anyone else. He then told me what his father had suggested to him when he’d asked for advice – his answer blew me away. “Dad said the best thing I could do was to make sure that I only had $100 in my pocket when I went out and to stop drinking when I spent that!” Now I don’t know what my face looked like but his mate’s face was a picture. Before I could say anything his mate blurted out “But that could be four bottles of vodka!” I’m sure that his father had the best of intentions when he gave his son advice but had he really thought it through and worked out how much alcohol he was actually recommending?
I’ve written about this issue in the past when I discussed the bizarre phenomenon of parents hosting post-formal events who include on the invitation that those young people attending are able to bring up to four cans to drink at the event. As I said at the time – “Do the parents hosting this event realize how much alcohol that actually is?” Even if each can (or bottle) was the equivalent of one standard drink (which it rarely is), that’s still four standard drinks. The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking recommends that “for healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion” – and that’s for adults. No number of drinks is recommended for those under 18-years, with the guidelines stating that “not drinking alcohol is the safest option.”
Once again, I realize that ‘not drinking alcohol’ is not realistic for all young people, but this idea that four drinks is an appropriate (and safe) number for parents to provide to their teens is frightening. It’s equally as concerning to hear that there are people who believe that stopping drinking when you’re spent $100 on alcohol is somehow promoting safer use.
The last time I wrote about this, I had recently surveyed some Year 10-12 students and asked them about the last time they drank alcohol – e.g., who provided the alcohol, how much they provided, what type of alcohol was it, and how much they drank? Based on the results, it was clear that amongst those parents who did provide alcohol, there was a poor understanding of how much they were providing and the potential harm associated with such behaviour. The sheer amount that some young people reported they were provided is staggering and clearly illustrates that some parents simply don’t understand how much alcohol is in the can or bottle that they hand over to their child.
- “My Dad gives me a 6-pack of beer to take with me. I’ve been given that since the end of Year 10. They don’t want me to drink spirits like my mates.” (Year 12 male)
- “I have three Smirnoff Double Blacks, sometimes 4 depending on what kind of party it is and whether my parents know the people who are hosting it.” (Year 11 female)
- “Usually 4 bourbon and cola UDLs. My parents have said that if they catch me drinking straight spirits then that’ll stop but they’ve been giving me this much since the end of Year 10.” (Year 11 male)
- “Two Smirnoff Double Blacks. I told my Mum that all my friends drink vodka and that I think that’s dangerous and I am able to better control my drinking with these drinks and not get into trouble.” (Year 10 female)
- “Four beers and never anymore. Mum and Dad have said they don’t want me to drink spirits and have said that beer is safer. Some weeks I start off with a couple of shots of vodka with my mates just to get the night going but that’s about it.” (Year 10 male)
Let’s break down just how much alcohol some of these teens were actually being provided …
- a 6-pack of beer is around 8.2 standard drinks (full-strength – 1.2 per can), around 6 (mid-strength – 1 per can) and 4.2 standard drinks (light – around 0.7 per can). This can vary depending on brands but realistically that’s a lot of alcohol
- the number of standard drinks in bourbon and cola UDL cans vary depending on whether they’re ‘normal strength’ or ‘black label’. Four cans can amount to between 4.8 to 6 standard drinks for cheaper brands, up to 7.6 for the higher strength and more expensive ones
- four Smirnoff Double Blacks results in them consuming 7.6 standard drinks – more than a third of a bottle of vodka
I firmly believe that most parents who are providing their teens alcohol to take to parties and gatherings are doing so for what they believe are the ‘right reasons’. I hear it all the time from parents I meet – “I give it to them because they’re going to get it from somewhere and I’d much rather they get it from me – at least I know what they’re drinking.”
These are parents who truly love their kids – I don’t for a minute think they’re intentionally trying to put them into harm’s way. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite – they’re trying to protect their child. I’m sure that was the case with the father I mentioned earlier – his son had approached him for help and he gave him the best advice he could.
The common theme in the student responses was that their parents didn’t want them to drink spirits. I think that’s still the case – parents, for the most part, are aware that young people downing bottles of vodka, bourbon or rum is extremely risky. Providing them with beer or pre-mixed drinks could therefore reduce that risk. Unfortunately, when they do this, they don’t seem to have any idea as to how much alcohol they’re actually providing their teens – at least, I hope that’s the case.
Published: April 2017