The Instructions Not Included campaign will help promote a shift in attitudes so that seeking support is seen as a sign of strength. By unlocking the power of parents and families to help themselves and one another, we will reach out to more families, overcome more barriers to support, and help to prevent the escalation of parenting problems.
By Michele O’Connor, mum of: Calum, 12, Millie, 9, Alfie, 7 and Tess, 4.
As the Family Planning Association launches a campaign highlighting the risks to sexual health caused by binge drinking, parents need to talk to their teens about a sensible approach to booze.
Do you know if your teen has tried their first drink yet – or been drunk? Chances are the answer’s yes. On average, UK children have their first alcoholic drink at 13 and, by just over 14, hundreds have been drunk for the first time.* A recent survey of 15 and 16 year olds carried out recently by the Drinkaware Trust**revealed that:
- 60% regard drinking as a normal part of growing up.
- Half of all 11 to 15-year-olds have already tried at least one alcoholic drink with their friends.
- Half of 16 and 17 years olds drink at least once a week.
Quite apart from the health risks associated with drinking so young, drinking to get drunk – as many teens do - means huge numbers are risking their sexual health.
Experts say 14 and 15 year olds who drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity – with 11 per cent of 15 to 16 year olds admitting to unprotected sex while drunk.
These are not the only problems. Chris Soreks of Drinkaware says: “There are strong links between drinking high levels of alcohol and youth offending, teenage pregnancy, truancy and exclusion from school.”
Nearly half of all 10 to 17 years olds who drink once a week or more admit to some sort of criminal activity or disorderly behaviour, around two-thirds get into an argument and about a fifth get into a fight.
And despite age restrictions, 10% of 12 to 15 years-olds say they buy their own alcohol, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies. 63% of 16-17 year olds have bought their own booze in pubs, nightclubs and bars. Beer and lager are the most popular drinks among under 18s, with spirits, wine and alcopops also popular.
Bleak reading, isn’t it? And it indicates an out-of-control attitude to alcohol in our teens very different from the more relaxed one found in many other countries.
So what can we do as parents to help our teens behave more responsibly around alcohol - short of keeping all our drink under lock and key? It’s about talking – and listening – to our teenagers in the right way.
Let’s face facts. Alcohol is a drug but a widely used drug. You need to get the message across that, while it’s a part of life and can make you feel nice and relaxed, it’s still a drug. And too much at once can be dangerous.
UK teenagers are drinking much more than their parents did — twice what teenagers were drinking 20 years ago, says Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of the West of England in Bristol. With that in mind, it’s vital to bring up the subject early – but when?
According to Drinkaware research, 40 per cent of parents thought 14 and a half was the right age to discuss the subject – but this is a year too late, according to the above statistics.
TV programmes and magazines can be a good place to start. If a celebrity has been photographed drunk after a night out, does your child perceive that to be glamorous or embarrassing? It’s an important conversation to have.
“I use soaps, like Hollyoaks or Eastenders, to talk about how alcohol can alter characters’ personalities and cause them to regret their actions when drunk,” says Sarah Kelly, 45, from Staines, Kent, mum to Louise, 16 and Kate, 14.
Explain why alcohol can be dangerous and what problems it can cause, without demonizing it. Teaching moderation is the key, says Alcohol Concern Chief Executive Don Shenker. Research shows some teenagers believe five glasses per night is normal – but this is bingeing. Discuss alcohol measurements – do they know what a unit of alcohol is? If you’re unsure, the Drinkaware website has tips, information and advice on talking to teens about alcohol.
Other helpful ideas:
Teach your child about sensible drinking – pacing drinks, alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and always eating a decent meal before drinking.
Warn them how easy it is to go over their limits, make a fool of themselves and compromise their safety or do something they might regret later.
Offer your child the chance to ask any questions so they can come to you if they ever need any help.
Parents’ drinking habits are an important factor in the way children experience alcohol. Almost half (49%) of 16 and 17 year-olds questioned by the Drinkaware charity said they had seen their parents drunk – and therefore think this approach to booze is normal.
A recent Finnish study found that where parents drank a lot, their teenagers tended to as well – either following their parent's example or because drinking made the parent more lax in monitoring their children's comings and goings, and more heavy-handed in disciplining them. That, in turn, increased the children's likelihood of drinking and getting drunk.
Look at your own behaviour around drink. Do you come home from work and reach for a bottle? Drink every day? Only feel relaxed with a glass in your hand? These gestures send a powerful message to your children, so try and cut down. Start by checking out the Drinkaware drink diary.
Also: “Have three alcohol-free days a week,” advises Dr Nick Sheron, liver specialist at Southampton University School of Medicine. “Not drinking mid-week automatically cuts down your units and reduces all alcohol-associated health risks.”
Click here for the Department for Children Schools and Families' campaign website "why let drink decide?" aimed at helping parents and carers talk to their teens about alcohol.