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Where do you stand on ‘underage drinking’? Have you really thought it through?

If you’ve ever attended one of my Parent Information Evenings you’d know that they’re not usually ‘interactive’. At the start of this year I made a decision to ‘shake it up’ a little and get the audience involved in one of my parent sessions. I did this by beginning the talk by asking those attending to turn to the person next to them and share their views on the following question – “Where do you stand on underage drinking? What are your rules around alcohol for your son or daughter?” It was fascinating to watch the response. Firstly, you could see many parents who simply did not feel comfortable expressing their opinions in this area with others, regardless of where they stood. Some, but certainly not all, parents who have a strict rule of ‘no drinking’ are worried that they’ll be seen as ‘wowsers’ or being overly protective, particularly if they have older teens. While parents who may have more liberal views, whether it be allowing their child to have a glass of wine with a meal or even providing their teen with a couple of cans to take to a party, also feel that they’re being judged by others. I get it, talking to people you may not know, about your views on anything can be confronting for some people. On the other hand, there were others in the audience who were extremely vocal (and judgmental) and things became a bit heated between a few people. It became quite obvious to me that I’d touched a nerve …

So where do you stand on ‘underage drinking’? Have you and your partner discussed the topic and are you on the ‘same page’? Without a doubt one of the most important things in this area is for parents to show a ‘united front’ when it comes to drinking. It is amazing how many parents don’t even realize they have differing views in this area until it is too late. If you do have polarized views (i.e., one of you believes your child should never have a drink until they’re 18, while the other is happy to give them a drink occasionally just to keep the peace), in my experience you are never going to get one to simply roll-over and flip to accommodate the other’s view. Instead, both of you have to be willing to meet in the middle in some way! That’s going to be difficult and I’ve seen families really damaged because no-one was willing to compromise. If you both decide to bullishly stand firm and don’t come to some kind of agreement I can guarantee your relationship will suffer and your teen is going to take advantage of the situation.

Too often parents wait too long to have this conversation, foolishly thinking that their child is too young and they don’t have to worry about it yet. Sadly, many parents end up talking it through when they find themselves having to deal with a crisis situation. This ‘crisis’ can be as serious as finding out that their child may actually be drinking alcohol or as simple as when their child is invited to a teenage party for the first time. Trying to have a discussion about your views at a time like this is unlikely to be a positive experience for either you or your child. Your teenager will feel uncomfortable at best, and threatened at worst, by the issue being raised at this time. As a result, you’re likely to feel frustrated and angry at their response, leading to greater friction and a breakdown in the parent-child relationship. It’s important to remember that research has shown that if you don’t support teen drinking you should tell your child and, very importantly, give your reasons for your views. We know that those parents who clearly state their views have teens who are less likely to consume alcohol, and if they do drink, they drink less.

Recently I’ve been conducting parent surveys across a number of school communities and one of the questions asks what rules they’ve established around alcohol, particularly around parties. Some of the rules provided were as follows:

  • My child is not permitted to drink alcohol until they are 18-years-old
  • My child can drink a small amount of alcohol when they are with us at home with a meal
  • My child can drink a small amount of alcohol when they are with us on special occasions, e.g., a wedding
  • My child can drink a small amount of alcohol that we provide to them to take to parties
  • My child can drink a small amount of alcohol that we provide to them to take to parties where we are sure there is adequate adult supervision
  • My child is not permitted to drink spirits, e.g., vodka
  • My child can drink a small amount of alcohol at home before they go to a party
  • My child can drink a small amount of alcohol at home with friends before they go to a party
  • My child can drink a small amount of alcohol at a friend’s home before they go to a party
  • We have no rules around alcohol. We believe our child will make good decisions in this area

Have you and your partner thought through and discussed your views on such specific details around alcohol as some of these? If you haven’t, I can guarantee at some point or another you’ll have to!

When I ask parents what rules they have in place around underage drinking, they usually say their child isn’t permitted to drink alcohol until they’re 18. Many of them acknowledge that this is not necessarily going to be easy to manage and that this rule may change as their child gets older and they become increasingly tired. But what I usually say to them is what does that rule actually mean in a practical sense? Have they actually thought it through? Here are just some of the things that need to be considered:

  • Will they be permitted to have their first drink on the day they turn 18?
  • If so, is it as the clock strikes midnight the night before?
  • Do you want their first drink to be a planned experience with you or will it be a ‘free-for-all’?
  • Who do they need to be with when they take their first drink?
  • Where will they be? Will you be providing the alcohol on that occasion?
  • Will they be allowed to drink in the year they turn 18?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that not permitting your child to drink alcohol until they’re 18 is a ‘bad rule’. It’s just that there’s so many parts of that rule to manage … Whenever I’m asked what rule I would have if I had children, my answer is always the same – “I will not provide you with alcohol in any situation until the day you turn 18 and even then, who knows?” It’s certainly something I have said to my nephews over the years when they have asked me the question … It reflects my views on underage drinking (the longer you delay your first drink, the better), as well as how I feel about alcohol more generally (I don’t drink alcohol and I really can’t think of a situation where I would ever feel comfortable providing it to young people I care about). It’s also completely manageable! But I’m an uncle and not a parent, it’s a heck of a lot easier for me …

Regardless of your relationship with a young person, let’s make it very clear, there are no right or wrong answers here. When it comes to rules around alcohol for your teen, only you can make those decisions. As I always say to parents, the best way to make those decisions is to collect the best possible information and then ‘follow your heart’, i.e., if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it! What’s important to remember is that whatever your views are on underage drinking (or anything else for that matter), the rules you and your partner come up with should be fair and age appropriate. The reason behind them has to be able to be explained and understood by your child (they may not necessarily like your reasoning but they need to understand why you’re imposing particular rules, i.e., you want to keep them safe) and, most importantly, they have to be able to be adjusted over time.

Published: October 2018

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