Teenagers dancing at party – Don’t leave talking to your teenager about alcohol and parties until it’s too late

Risky business leaving alcohol conversations until too late

If you have a teenager who’s in their last year of school, there’s so much to think about that you might not even be ready to consider end-of-year celebrations. After all, it’s ages away, right?

Well, no. The months (or the years, if your kids are younger) will fly by, and there’s no point putting your head in the sand.

For parents of teenagers, risky business is more than just an old Tom Cruise movie

If you have a child in Year 12, you’re probably old enough to remember Tom Cruise sliding across the lounge room floor in his underwear while his parents were out of town – not to mention what came next – while still being young enough to remember your own teenage years. It’s normal to worry about the idea of your child letting their hair down as part of Schoolies Week celebrations, but like most worries, it’s better to bring it out into the open and talk about it.

While many school leavers will come home with nothing worse than sunburn and a lighter wallet, it’s fair to say that the biggest risk presented by end-of-school celebrations is the consumption of alcohol

More to the point, it’s the resultant lowering of inhibitions and decreased ability to make sensible decisions that creates dangers such as:

When it comes to teens and risk-taking, we know from extensive research that the adolescent brain is primed to seek out new experiences and quite often those which present some type of risk. But for parents, there can be an uncomfortable contradiction between our expectation that young people need to develop their independence and our desire to keep them protected from harm.

Then there’s the contradiction between society’s attitudes to alcohol and our expectation that teenagers should avoid it. While illegal drugs grab the headlines, legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco present a far greater immediate health problem in Australia. As the Medical Journal of Australia puts it:  “As alcohol is an integral part of our culture, we urgently need to manage teenage drinking appropriately and comprehensively, and to guide young people to a `healthy norm’ for adolescent alcohol consumption”.

Although it’s tempting to throw your hands in the air and give up, it’s important to know that parents really can have a big influence on when and how their teenagers start drinking. To begin with, is it a good idea to buy alcohol for your kids if they’re under 18? Apart from the fact that in some states and under some circumstances it's illegal, what message are you sending by your actions as well as your words?                              

Research confirms what Teen Triple P has been explaining to parents for many years: that with alcohol consumption as with so many other issues, it really helps to talk about what the rules and limits are, and to be consistent in applying them. This will work most successfully when it’s not a case of “laying down the law”, but rather exchanging information and communicating within the context of a positive, loving relationship. And of course parents who model responsible drinking behavior for their teenager are more likely to have success in this area than those of the “do as I say, not as I do” variety.

Another aspect of Teen Triple P that parents really find helpful is learning how to teach risk-evaluation skills to teenagers. It’s about helping them to come up with possible options and action plans. Teaching teenagers to manage risks for themselves is more effective in the long term than going to extreme lengths to protect them (such as hiring private detectives to monitor their Schoolies Week activities).

The time to start having these conversations is now, not in November. 

A recent survey found that teenagers spend many hours planning their purchase and consumption of alcohol prior to school-leavers’ festivals, but virtually no time researching potential risks or basic health information. By finding some time in the rush of graduation activities to let them know you love and care for them, asking them about their plans, and providing them with some facts about alcohol’s health impacts, you may be able to help more than you know.

For worried parents, at least there’s some good news: underage binge drinking in Australia has dropped dramatically over the past 13 years.  There’s also been a big increase in the number of kids aged 14-17 who abstain completely from alcohol (from 28 per cent to almost 60 per cent). There are several theories as to why, including:

  • More alcohol-free social opportunities via the internet
  • Increased emphasis on healthy lifestyles
  • A growth in the number of teenagers from cultural backgrounds where non-drinking is the norm (abstinence rates increased across the board, but more so in households where a language other than English was spoken)
  • Stronger awareness of alcohol’s potential to damage the developing teenage brain

But here are some other facts kids and parents need to know:

  • Despite the reduction in underage drinking, rates of heavy drinking have remained stable among young adults (18-29 year olds), and alcohol intake has increased among those over 30.  
  • Alcohol-related harm is causing the death of one Australian teenager every week on average, with another 60 landing in hospital.

So whether or not your kids are at the age where all this is upon you, it’s a good idea to create an opportunity to start the conversational ball rolling with your son or daughter, if you haven’t already, about alcohol and its effects on the brain and body.