This week I had two parents ask me almost identical questions after one of my presentations – both around the notion of the provision of alcohol in a controlled family setting. One mother wanted to know whether the age-old practice of a son in his late teens (she talked about a 16 year-old) having a beer with his father at home was still appropriate and the other was a father who had been brought up in an Italian family where a small glass of wine was given to the children with a meal. Both acknowledged the message in my talk around ‘delay, delay, delay’ but wanted to know my thoughts on the whole concept of the importance of providing alcohol in a controlled setting in an effort to hopefully ‘teach’ a teen to drink responsibly.
Firstly, there are no ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ as far as parenting in this area is concerned. Don’t get me wrong, 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.
So is drinking with your child encouraging them, controlling them or teaching them responsible drinking? Some people, like the father I mentioned above, cite the ‘Mediterranean Model’ as a good example of how you could introduce alcohol to a child in the home, i.e., with a meal with the family like they do in countries like Greece and Italy. Unfortunately, simply ‘transplanting’ the Mediterranean Model to Australia does not necessarily work as there are so many other social influences at play. In this country, alcohol is associated with success in so many areas of life, whether it be sport or celebration and that is difficult to challenge simply by providing alcohol with a meal. It is also important to acknowledge that even in countries where this model once appeared to have been successful there are now growing problems, e.g., France now has one of the highest rates of liver disease in the world and are now seeing some significant youth drinking issues. Although family influence is incredibly important, there are so many other external influences that bombard our kids from a very early age, most of which are almost impossible to control, the positive messages you are trying to send can become confused, sometimes resulting in a completely different message being conveyed to the one intended.
Delaying drinking for as long as possible is still the best message for teenagers 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.
So am I saying that a father shouldn’t have a beer with his teenage son or families should avoid allowing their teens to have a glass of wine with a meal? As I’ve said before, the evidence is confusing here and as I discussed recently there are essentially four messages that are acknowledged as important for parents in this area:
- 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!
With all of that in mind, I believe the best way forward for any parent is to ‘follow their heart’ – I know that sounds so corny but it really is the best answer. If you 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, rules and boundaries are discussed and established around alcohol and parties. Believing that simply allowing your child to drink with you at home, no matter how controlled, is going to somehow protect them from drinking in a risky manner in the future is not only naïve but dangerous …