Dr Bobby Smyth, who is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, said his experience was that children who grow up in a permissive environment, where drink is permitted at home, tend to drift towards greater use of alcohol.
“By the time parents realise this, it is hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” Dr Smyth said.
While parents’ intentions were well meant — based on the belief introducing their children to alcohol in a supervised environment gave them a greater degree of control — in fact the message it sent out was: “I’m now old enough to drink,” Dr Smyth said.
“It’s not the glass of pinot grigio with mum. It’s the message they take away from it. Most of their drinking will be done outside of that controlled environment with their mates,” he said.
Studies done in Australia and the US, which looked at the outcomes for teenagers given drink in supervised settings, compared to those who were not given alcohol, showed there was a higher percentage of alcohol-related harm in the first group, Dr Smyth said.
This included a higher level of accidents and injuries, more involvement in fights, and higher levels of self harm and unplanned sexual activity.
Dr Smyth said while some Mediterranean cultures did introduce their children to drink in the home, the same approach was unworkable in Ireland because of the vastly different attitude to alcohol.
“The Mediterranean cultures are vastly more intolerant of excess drinking and drunkenness. It is not acceptable to get drunk in Italy or Greece regardless of age. The problem with Celtic Anglo-Saxon cultures is that you are almost expected to get drunk. There is a tolerance of unhealthy drinking,” Dr Smyth said.
He said there was also a growing body of evidence to show that delaying the age at which young people start drinking has a positive impact on adulthood.
“It doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be an issue with drink by delaying its introduction but if you are older, the likelihood is you will be able to manage the fallout from drinking better, even in terms of decision making. Also, there is evidence to suggest the brain is developing until the age of 20, so the potential for subtle cognitive damage is reduced if you start drinking at a later age,” Dr Smyth said.
The best approach for parents was to keep the lines of communication open and to set out rules.
“They should be good clear rules that are monitored and some response where a child falls short.
“I don’t mean dire consequences like grounding someone for six months. Maybe cutting pocket money for a week, something that doesn’t make everyone’s life impossible.”
* See a guide for parents on teenage drinking at http://exa.mn/f4