PARENTS need to give teens a clear, unambiguous message that they disapprove of underage drinking.
So says consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Bobby Smyth, who sits on the board of Alcohol Action Ireland.
“Parents are underestimating their influence — they’re failing to give clear messages about what’s unhealthy.”
Irish teens are drinking too much, too soon and dangerously. In a 2011 report on drinking among 15 and 16-year-olds across Europe, Irish students reported drinking one-third more on their latest drinking day than the European average.
In the 30 days prior to the survey, half had drunk alcohol (48% boys and 52% girls), four in 10 had more than five drinks on a single drinking occasion and almost a quarter had been drunk on at least one occasion.
Last month, Ian O’Sullivan and Eimear Murphy, TY students at Coláiste Treasa, Kanturk, won the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.
Their project explored whether parents’ drinking habits and attitudes to their children drinking was a potential cause of hazardous drinking in teens.
“On Junior Cert results night, a lot [of students] were drinking. Everyone says it’s peer pressure but in the same group of friends some were drinking and others weren’t, so we felt there must be another reason, not just peers, so we thought maybe parents,” says Eimear, 16, who doesn’t drink alcohol.
They surveyed 902 fifth and sixth-year students, as well as the parents of 360 of them. They found when parents believe it’s acceptable for teens to drink alcohol on special occasions, they’re up to four times more likely to engage in hazardous drinking than other adolescents.
All evidence shows the Cork students got it right, says Smyth.
It’s a myth that introducing children to alcohol early at home helps develop a low risk relationship with alcohol.
“It’s not just ineffective, but counterproductive. It actually increases risk that children will drink more heavily and in more harmful ways.”
Alcohol Action Ireland CEO Suzanne Costello says parents often mistakenly draw on their own decades-old experience of teen drinking, forgetting the drinking environment has radically changed.
“Drink is cheaper, more widely available and more heavily marketed than ever before.
“The nature of drinking has changed; shots, in particular, spirits and wine have grown in popularity. Pre-drinking is prevalent and we drink twice as much as we did in the 1960s.”
Smyth meets parents who say “I was a teenager in the early 80s; teenage drinking happened back then, it always did — what’s the problem?”
But, says Smyth, children are now drinking two years younger than they did 30 years ago. The way in which Irish people drink is also problematic.
“We give ourselves permission to drink much larger quantities of alcohol than is acceptable in much of the rest of the world. It’s very acceptable in Ireland to be drunk. There’s no sense of shame. In most other places, there’s a sense of shame about being so out of control that you get drunk.”
Teen girls now drink as much as boys but parents miss the implications of this.
“Teen boys and young Irishmen always tended to drink to get drunk. In the context of meeting someone new to form a relationship, girls tended to stay sober, probably acting as a restraining influence on the men. Now that girls drink as much as boys, there’s no reason to hold back,” says Smyth.
The “what’s the problem — we all did it” attitude to underage drinking doesn’t take into account teens’ natural tendency to be impulsive.
“Alcohol cranks this up a few notches. They’re more likely to get involved in risky behaviour, to decide they’ll swim across that river, climb that tree or ignore the girl who’s saying ‘no’ to her shirt being taken off,” says Smyth, citing a Rape Crisis Network campaign that identified alcohol as the true date rape drug.
Dr Aric Sigman, author of Alcohol Nation: How to Protect Our Children from Today’s Drinking Culture, says parents shouldn’t underestimate the effects of their drinking habits and attitudes on their children.
“Children who see their parents drunk are more likely to get drunk, drink underage and binge drink,” he warns.
Irish people often perceive their own hazardous drinking inaccurately. A Health Research Board report issued last year found some people who defined themselves as ‘light or moderate’ drinkers were actually binge drinkers, consuming six or more standard drinks in a typical session.
“Children learn to drink from the culture and context in which they live. When they enter into drinking, they do so in the same way as the rest of Irish people — in a fairly harmful manner,” says Smyth.
Parents who use alcohol to medicate difficult emotions are teaching their kids to do the same, psychologist and addiction specialist Colin O’Driscoll says.
“If parents use alcohol as a default coping strategy to deal with stress, anger, interpersonal problems, or family discord, it’s very obvious to their kids. It becomes a knee-jerk response for the kids to do the same. When they come under pressure, it’s an option immediately on the table.”
Pre-drinking is now commonplace in the teen/young adult drinking culture.
Many drink a bottle of wine or a naggin of vodka before leaving the house, not realising or caring, says Smyth, that anything more than three pints or half a bottle of wine or six shorts is risky drinking. “Parents just turn a blind eye.
"They’re bemused, they don’t like it, but they shouldn’t be facilitating the behaviour.”
With his own children, Smyth feels it’s his job as parent to give the unambiguous message that they won’t drink with his permission until they’re 18.
“I’m not naïve enough to think my failing to give it permission will prevent underage drinking, but I do think it puts the brakes on it.
“Kids allowed by their parents to drink at 16 or 17 just give themselves permission to drink more.”
Dr Bobby Smyth, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, says if you permit underage drinking:
* The drinking you see at home is likely not to reflect the drinking that occurs outside.
* Alcohol can mask intoxication via other drugs.
* It’s difficult to stop once you’ve allowed it to happen.
* You must decide where to draw the line.
* Reduce their own drinking.
* Monitor/minimise access to alcohol at home.
* Avoid drinking at home before going out socially.
* Avoid joking about your hangover or talking about the ‘stupid things’ you did while under the influence.
* Listen to teens’ views and opinions.
* Based on this discussion, agree expectations/consequences.
* Withdraw rewards and/or impose agreed sanctions if behaviour falls short. If this happens, move on and don’t hold a grudge.