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Protecting our kids from today’s drinking culture
We live in a culture that loves to drink – and we’re passing the habit on to our children, says author and teen drinking expert Dr Aric Sigman. Given the growing body of new evidence about the dangers of drinking at a young age, Sigman suggests it’s time for a new approach.
“Parents have been led to believe that if they drink at home, this is in some way a contradiction which sends mixed messages, unless they allow their children to have some alcohol too,” he says.
“Today’s parents don’t feel entitled to say, ‘Your father and I are adults and can do a lot of things that you can’t do simply because we are adults’.”
One study from the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that a first drink of alcohol before the age of 15 (not counting small tastes or sips) sharply increased the risk of alcohol-related disorders.
Another US study, this time by Florida’s College of Medicine, looking at low-income black and Hispanic students, found that 12-year-olds who were allowed to drink at home were up to three times more likely to get drunk between the ages of 12-14. A 2010 study of Dutch families also found that the more teenagers were allowed to drink at home, the more they drank elsewhere.
When Otago University’s Preventive and Social Medicine Department surveyed 2,548 undergraduate students across five New Zealand universities, it found that students who began drinking heavily while at school were likely to continue at university and participate in risky sexual experiences, including sex they regretted. Half the students had their first alcoholic drink before they turned 15 – but those who started later drank less at university and were less likely to have unsafe or unwanted sexual experiences.
Parents may believe they are giving their children a more responsible, cosmopolitan or ‘French’ approach to alcohol, says Sigman, but it’s worth remembering that France’s death rate from cirrhosis of the liver is twice that of the UK’s.
Parents also tend to underestimate the impact of their own drinking habits on their children’s attitude to alcohol, but numerous studies suggest this is a powerful influence. Studies suggest that a child’s perception of their parents’ ability to set and enforce limits also has a big impact on their behaviour. For instance, one US study of 10- to 14-year-olds found that of those whose parents let them watch R-rated (R17) movies ‘all the time’, almost a quarter had tried to drink without their parents’ knowledge. Compare that with the barely three percent who tried to drink of those who were ‘never allowed’ to watch R-rated movies. This 2010 Dartmouth Medical School study had a large sample size, including 3,577 children who had never drunk alcohol.
What you can do
According to the latest New Zealand research, 19 percent of students who are current drinkers are worried about how much they drink or have tried to cut down or give up.
We may not feel as though our teenagers pay attention to what we think, but Sigman says the research clearly shows that parents play a crucial role in modelling behavior and supporting positive choices. The best way to help your child to avoid drinking is to have a strong, trusting relationship with them, he says.
In the UK, the Royal College of Physicians reports that due to teen drinking, it is now commonplace to see young people in their twenties dying of liver disease. UK National Health figures from 2011 show that the number of young drinkers with serious health problems has risen by more than 50 percent in the last decade.
A 2010 survey found that more than a third of British 18- to 20-year-olds go out with the explicit intention to get drunk. More than one in four reported that they had no idea how they got home at least once in the previous year. And one third of UK teenagers killed on their bicycles had been drinking.
Seven tips for talking to your teen:
1 Encourage your teen to talk by being an active listener.
2 Eat meals together to create opportunities for conversation.
3 Ask open-ended questions and encourage your teen to tell you what he or she thinks.
4 Try not to react emotionally to what you hear. Keep calm.
5 Don’t try to ‘score points’. Respect their opinion and they’ll be more likely to respect yours.
6 Accept your teenager’s efforts as well as their achievements.
7 Set clear and realistic boundaries. Talk to them about alcohol on more than one occasion. Clearly state your expectations and establish consequences when rules are broken.
Alcohol Nation: How to protect our children from today’s drinking culture, by Dr Aric Sigman, Hachette 2011, $39. A father of four, Sigman is also a Fellow of the Society of Biology, Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society
Kiwi teen drinking:a snapshot
The latest comparative study of more than 9,000 secondary school students reveals encouraging and worrying trends for Kiwi teens.
On the positive side, the University of Auckland’s Young People and Alcohol report found that youth in 2007 were less likely to be regular drinkers compared with their counterparts in 2001, and they were less likely to consider teenage drinking as acceptable. On the other hand, the study found that of those who did drink, 57 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the month prior to the survey, up from 49 percent in 2001.
One “particularly worrying” finding is that nearly a quarter of all students, whether drinkers or not, had been driven by someone who was potentially drunk during the previous month. Also, eight percent of students who were drivers had driven a motor vehicle while potentially drunk during the previous month. These findings are “consistent with the completely unacceptable loss of young lives in alcohol-involved crashes on New Zealand roads”, say the researchers.