The Just Right Parent Column is written by Dr Toby Sachsenmaier, a Clinical Child Psychologist. This column was originally published in The Clare People of Tuesday, July 7, 2015.
Dear Dr. Toby,
Our 16 year old has started drinking and getting drunk behind my back. What can we do?
Dear T Mc,
There is little parents can do to stop teenagers from experimenting with drinking if they want to. Adolescence is a time of experimentation. Parents can’t often stop young people from drinking completely.
But parents have a great deal of influence over whether their children develop unhealthy drinking habits such as drinking too frequently, binge drinking, or drink driving. Not only that, but there are important reasons to do this. We have all heard about dangers posed by unhealthy drinking by young people, including fatal or life-changing accidents, criminal or other antisocial behaviour, victimization or assault, and long-lasting health effects including addiction. Recent research tells us that the long-term dangers are up to 6 times higher for people who begin drinking before the age of 15. Delaying the age at which young people take their first drink lowers their risk of becoming problem drinkers.
Although peers are the main influence on whether young people decide to experiment with alcohol, we now know that parents and families are the greatest influence on whether teens develop unhealthy patterns of drinking that create long-term problems. There are three main ways parents influence whether children develop unhealthy or unsafe drinking habits, and the earlier you start the better.
First, be a positive role model. Children learn about alcohol from what they see and hear in their own families as they grow up. Look at your own attitude toward drinking and your own drinking habits. Growing up with parents who are heavy drinkers or who behave badly while drinking increases the chances of children becoming heavy drinkers themselves. If your family has had problems because of alcohol, your child should know about it, and how it has affected your family. Be open about your own experiences, too.
Second, your style of parenting has a strong effect on how your child copes with many of the challenges of adolescence, including drinking. The young people least likely to develop unsafe or unhealthy drinking habits are the ones whose parents hold them accountable for their behaviour while at the same time maintaining warm and positive relationships with them. This is an approach called Positive Parenting, and it has been shown to encourage young people to be responsible, caring, and good problem-solvers. On the other hand, young people are most likely to develop problems with drinking and other risky behaviours if their parents are too strict and critical, or too laid-back and permissive. It is never too early or too late to start Positive Parenting, and many books, websites, and courses can help with this.
The third important task for parents is to educate and communicate with your children about drinking. Talking to young people openly and honestly about drinking is vitally important. Ask open-ended questions, and listen to the answers without interrupting. Help your child to think of solutions to any problems that may come up. Control your emotions. If you hear something that upsets you, take a few deep breaths and express your feelings in a positive way.
Make sure your child understands the risks of unsafe drinking. Schools are often helpful with this. Reinforce this message at home with open and frequent conversation about your own attitudes, expectations, and values about drinking and other habits. Set clear expectations, and communicate your values. Youngsters are less likely to drink when they know that parents and other important adults in their lives have strong feelings about it, especially if you have maintained a warm and supportive relationship with your child.
Finally, look at how your teenager is doing overall rather than just focusing on drink. Is he doing okay in school? Does he have good friendships? Does he have positive interests and activities that bring joy to his life? Try to increase the positive interactions, activities, and relationships in his life, rather than trying to control his behaviour. The better things are going for him in general, the less likely it is that he will develop unhealthy drinking habits.
Dr. Toby Sachsenmaier is a Clinical Child Psychologist with over 20 years experience. She offers a 6-week course about behaviour, emotions, and self-esteem for parents of school-age children and adolescents.
If you have a question for Dr. Toby, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for publication, and all identifying information, such as names, will be removed. No questions will be responded to privately.