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When should parents start making rules around alcohol and parties?

One of the more positive things I’m seeing at my Parent Information Evenings this year is how many parents of much younger children are now attending. Traditionally schools have pitched my talks to the parents of the students I speak to (i.e., Years 10, 11 and 12), but realistically by that time, bad habits have already been established and, as a result, it is going to be extremely difficult for changes to be made in the key areas of parental monitoring and parenting style. Of course, for those in the audience who have been doing the ‘hard yards’, being told by their teen that they’re ‘the worst parent in the world’ and simply want someone to say that they’re doing the right thing, a talk like mine is just what they’re after! But when it comes to actually making a difference it is the parents of Years 7, 8 and 9 that I believe are the ones who should be there (and if I get primary school parents, well hallelujah!) …

One of my key messages to parents this year is around the timing of setting rules around alcohol and parties. Too often, parents wait too long to outline their views on the issue of alcohol with their child, many of them believing that if they do it too early they could spark interest and lead them down the road to alcoholism! Other parents believe that the conversation is not relevant for their child at this time in their life – they don’t believe they are drinking alcohol, why should they outline rules on the topic? If you just sit back and think for a second how much information (including marketing and advertising, heavily promoting the product) your son or daughter is bombarded with regarding alcohol from the time they are born, you quickly realize that a conversation in this area is vitally important well before they hit their teens.

Around the same time it is also wise to have a discussion about rules and boundaries to do with parties and gatherings. This is an opportunity to talk about your own experiences with parties – what was good about them and what could go wrong, no matter what age your child is. Of course, the content of that conversation would vary greatly, depending on their age, e.g., one with a 16 year-old could involve talking about a party you went to where someone got drunk and you had to look after them, whereas a discussion with your 11 year-old would more likely be about feeling left-out or uncomfortable in a social setting and making it clear to them that should never be worried about calling you should they feel the need to be taken out of that situation. By discussing your experiences and your concerns, rules and boundaries should be established – what do they want from the party experience, what do you want and then the trick is to somehow try to meet in the middle. Do this early (I recommend no later than Year 7) and it’s going to be so much easier. As I said in a previous blog entry – try to make a rule around a teenage party the first time they get invited to one and you are highly likely to find yourself in all sorts of trouble! On the other hand, if you sit with your 12 year-old and talk about rules around alcohol (i.e., “alcohol is adult activity, you’re not to drink!”), well before they’ve even thought about drinking, you’re not going to meet nearly as much resistance. In fact, most 12 year-olds are going to be quite surprised that the discussion even came up and will most probably accept the rules without question, agreeing wholeheartedly with you that alcohol should not be a part of their life.

So, in summary, here are my thoughts on how best to handle this issue:

  • Rules around alcohol and parties should be established no later than Year 7, well before they come into contact with alcohol and start being invited to parties where it may be an issue
  • Your first rules around alcohol will always be ‘you’re not having any’ – evidence shows clearly that the key message should be ‘delay, delay, delay’ for as long as possible
  • Use your own experiences with parties to establish age appropriate rules
  • Create rules for parties around calling the hosts to find out more about the event, as well as insisting on dropping and picking them up in primary school – start this behaviour now and you won’t have so many problems later
  • Make it clear that rules around alcohol for adults are very different to those for young people and that is entirely appropriate
  • Rules change as they get older and good behaviour will be rewarded – make this clear when rules are first established. Bring your child back to the table once a year and maybe even every six months as they get older to discuss how the rules can be made more age-appropriate but still address your concerns

Every family is going to have different rules around alcohol, just as they are when it comes to parties and gatherings. No-one can tell you as a parent what to do in these areas, you’re going to have to make those decisions yourself – but whatever you come up with, you’ve got to make absolutely certain that the rules you establish match your values and you can live with them should something go wrong.

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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