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Most people drink alcohol, and your teens are likely to as well, at least in the future. What should you teach them about responsible social drinking, and how?

Alcohol has been a part of the human experience for a really, really long time — it was known to all the big ancient civilizations, and from what I've read, archeological evidence suggests it's probably been around since somewhere 10000 BC. Alcohol features prominently in today's United States (to name just one country) as well; 86.4 percent of all adults report they have consumed alcohol in their lives, 70.1 percent say they have had a drink in the last year, and 56.0 percent own up to boozing within the last month. [1]

If you're currently parenting a teen, or a child who will soon become one, alcohol is a topic that will come up. Are you wondering how to deal with teenagers' curiosity about drinking? Your approach will, of course, depend on your personal views and alcohol consumption to some extent, but based on the figures above, we'll assume that you occasionally enjoy alcohol yourself — most folks do. 

Alcohol consumption brings some benefits, like the well-being derived from the social cohesion one experiences after drinking with friends (really, there's research on that) [2]. There are also some risks, like, you know, slipping into alcoholism and developing liver cirrhosis, for example. What exactly should you discuss, and what does science have to say about that?

Teen Drinking: The Stats

OK, not the stats, but some stats — from the United States, where many readers will be located. The US is quite unique in having a legal drinking age of 21, but the CDC makes it clear that that doesn't serve as a deterrent for high school students, of whom [3]:

  • A full third reported drinking "some amount" of booze. 
  • 18 percent engaged in binge drinking. 
  • Eight percent drove after drinking — only in the US is someone not considered old enough to drink legally allowed to drive, and this figure makes it clear that the two should be examined together. Also, a shocking 20 percent of high school students rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking. (Not any safer than doing it yourself, people!)
Worried? Wait till you hear the whole story — all of the above applied to the last 30 days, not to the whole of the high schoolers' lives! Underage drinking is a big problem then, and one you'll want to address with your teen in some way. 

Drinking during the early adolescent years comes with a special danger. Forty percent of those people who start drinking before they turn 15 have signs of alcoholism, four times the rate seen in folks who waited until they turned 21. In addition, around 5,000 young people die from alcohol-related causes in the US each year, with most of these deaths attributed to car crashes. [4]

What Research Says About Parental Booze-Related Teaching

Your voice matters, and your behavior matters. The community a child is growing up in has the largest influence on their present and future alcohol use. That community includes your teen's peer group, the school, the wider community, and your relatives besides yourself, of course, but you're a crucial part of the story. [4]

Being European, I don't think I'm unusual in having had my first drinks in a family setting. Having half a glass of wine at the dinner table with one's parents for someone's birthday, or celebrating your football (soccer, if you're so inclined) team's victory with half a pint of beer down the pub with your dad at 17 certainly seems, at first glance, to be the perfect introduction to drinking.

Indeed, parental intent to teach their brood about healthy social drinking is one of the prime reasons for moms and dads to allow underage drinking.

The appeal is obvious — you control how much your teen has to drink, and you're right there, so you are able to make sure they don't do anything stupid like driving. [5] There are also, however, studies that suggest that teens who have been offered alcohol at home are more likely to begin drinking outside of the family setting as well. [6] The jury's out on whether you should allow your teen to drink small amounts of alcohol in your home on special occasions, then. 

Surely you should at least talk to your child about drinking? The US Surgeon General certainly advises parents to teach their kids about the dangers of underage drinking, to make them aware of the law, and to have open, honest conversations about booze. [4] There are also studies, however, that suggest that the more you talk about alcohol, the more likely your teen is to drink! [7, 8] (We at SteadyHealth are quite sure that it entirely depends on the content of the conversation. Repeated chat about how hard uncle's last years of life were because of cirrhosis are probably going to have a different impact than conversations about what wines are the best.)

Contradictory study results make it hard to decide what to say about alcohol, but there are some lessons you can take away:

  • If you have strict rules about alcohol consumption, your teen is less likely to drink. [7]
  • If you are a responsible social drinker yourself, your teen is more likely to also become a responsible social drinker. [9]
  • If alcohol is available to your teen at home (including when you are not present), they are more likely to drink. [8]

There's scientific studies and there's common sense, of course. We'd certainly recommend you teach your kids about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, about the dangers of drinking and driving, and about the added dangers of drinking at a young age. Make your teen aware of the stupid things young people often do under the influence of a influence of a peer group. (Yes, parents can influence their teen's peer group — which you can read more about by clicking on the link.)

Discourage binge drinking in the strongest terms, and teach your teen what "a drink" really means — there can be around three units of alcohol in just one big wine glass, for instance [10]. When the time comes, I am going to discuss this with my teens in detail with the help of videos such as the one provided by the UK charity drinkaware linked in the last reference, as well as looking at the suggested weekly limits and encouraging them to stay well under those. Finally, most definitely make your teen aware if you have a family history of alcoholism and your child is, as such, at a higher danger of becoming alcohol-dependent themselves [9]. 

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