This is a topic I’ve been thinking about lots in the lead up to Christmas and the inevitable get togethers, almost all featuring alcohol.
My eldest child is thirteen next year and his brothers are close behind. at 10 and 11. We aim to be very open as a family in terms of discussing topics such as alcohol and recently my eldest has discussed underage drinking at school which has triggered discussion at home. We’re not great drinkers, but recently if we have had a beer or a glass of wine and the children have expressed interest in what it tastes like we have allowed them a sip. We’ve quickly learnt that they hate almost everything apart from Cider which they have a rather scary liking for (I should add we have never allowed them more than a trial sip!).
I have no idea what the ‘right’ way to introduce children to alcohol is, it’s something I’ve never researched until now. I feel that my parents had it pretty much right with my own upbringing and planned to just follow what they did.
My mum and dad used to have a glass of wine regularly with their dinner, though I don’t remember them drinking outside of mealtimes. If I ever expressed an interest, they allowed me to take a sip, though I distinctly remember not liking it. When I was about 14 my mum bought me a mini, personal, bottle of Babycham (I was a classy teen!) for Christmas dinner – on my insistence – which was my first proper introduction to alcohol. Later when I was 15 or 16 if my friends came around for the evening they would be offered a glass of wine with dinner, they almost always took up the offer, I almost always didn’t. My parents were certainly much more laid back about alcohol than any of my other friend’s parents and I grew up without thinking it a big deal, it wasn’t taboo, it wasn’t ‘bad’ (though I very clearly knew the risks of drinking too much etc.) but it wasn’t ‘cool’ to drink either. I could ask any question I wanted and they would answer it, without judgement. I was allowed to make my own decisions, they trusted me and in turn that freedom and trust almost always helped me to make the right decision (I did say *almost* always!).
Aside from a brief spell at uni (and many “£1 a pint discos”) I have never really been a drinker. It’s something I can take or leave and actually I can’t remember the last time I drank alcohol, I suspect it was probably about six months ago. My tolerance now stands at precisely 1 glass of Pinot Grigio! I would like my children to grow up with a similar healthy attitude.
With my alarming lack of knowledge on this topic in mind, I set out to research how to tackle the topic of drinking with my children. My first stop was to Drinkaware’s underage drinking website*
The website is a bit of a sharp shock if I’m honest. The very first thing you see when you visit the website is the image below proclaiming that even getting drunk just once raises a 16 year old’s chance of being violent by 85%. I’m not sure what research this came from and what other variables were involved (I’d like to see more as I suspect other things are at play), but that’s pretty shocking and certainly grabbed my attention!
This video discusses the risks of underage drinking, again, it’s a pretty sobering (pardon the pun) watch:
and this is the UK’s official guidance on alcohol and children.
The professional advice concerning how to broach alcohol consumption with your child seems to include the following points:
- be open and honest with your child. Invite discussion and answer their questions freely.
- try to have several smaller chats with your child, rather than one big talk. Make it part of ongoing conversation
- it’s never too early to discuss alcohol/drinking with your child, don’t wait until they show an interest or start drinking alcohol
- it’s never too late to discuss either, even if you teen is drinking already it’s worth discussing with them
- don’t wait until it becomes an issue, be proactive. Drinkaware say “80% of parents say they’ll “deal with it when it happens”(3). The problem is that by the time it happens, it’s often too late and you’re not prepared. You may say one thing, your partner another and your children’s friends will have their own opinions. It really pays to have a plan, to have sorted it out between you, even if you and the other parent live apart. Talk through what rules and boundaries you’d like to put in place and what you will say.”
- be authoritative, not authoritarian – be knowledgeable, but keep the conversation free of judgement, lectures and threats. As with any topic children are far more open if they feel that the parent is empathic, understands and supports them.
- pick a good time to chat, family meal times are great. I also like to talk to my children about important topics when putting them to bed, that 15 minutes when tucking them up at night (the time that I used to read them a story when they were younger!) is great for reconnecting and talking about what’s on their mind. My own children are certainly much happier to talk about ‘big issues’ at this time than any other. They also appreciate the one to one time with me alone away from their siblings.
- find a hook. Perhaps something you’ve seen on TV, a news topic, or picking up on a talk they’ve had at home. Rather than launching straight into ‘the chat’.
- be honest about your own childhood. Discuss times you made bad decisions regarding alcohol, how you felt and how you could have done things differently. As our children’s role models it’s important that we accept our flaws and learn from them so that they can do the same.
- consider making some ‘family drinking rules’, with your child. Asking questions such as “can you think of any rules we can make in our family about drinking alcohol?” (be prepared that they will have to apply to you too!).
- help your child to feel empowered by researching and making decisions for themselves. This doesn’t just go for alcohol, it goes for almost every issue you will face in the teen years. I love this quote from Drinkaware: “The more you encourage your children to make decisions for themselves the better choices they are likely to make. Feeling that they can manage difficult situations and make choices builds resilience – the state of mind that says they can solve problems rather than being one. Saying “You’re not joining your friends and drinking!” might be less effective than “I can understand you want to be with your friends. You know the dangers of alcohol. What could we do to make it easier for you not to drink?””
- if you don’t know the answer to a question it’s OK to say “I don’t know”. You don’t have to know all of the answers, it’s perfectly OK to do some research together. It’s just important that you are your child’s primary source of information and that they ask you if they do have a question.
These are some of the most commonly asked drinking questions children ask (from Drinkaware).
How would YOU answer if your child asked you these?
A lot of things that prevent underage drinking are things that I endorse in all of my everyday parenting ethos, such as:
- building your child’s self esteem and confidence as much as possible, intrinsic motivation is the most important to foster in your child. If they don’t seek external validation for their behaviour they will be less likely to drink if friends do.
- realising that children learn via modelling, ie they do as you do, not as you say! so how you drink will have more of an effect on them than what you tell them. Look at your own drinking behaviour – is it healthy?
- have rules and boundaries that you reinforce, but do so in an empathic way so that they may learn from it
- help them to not bow to peer pressure, think about the implications of parenting strategies that encourage compliance from your child or praising them lots for their actions. Do you really want them to be a compliant teenager or do you want them to not be afraid to say “no” to their peers?
- help them to regulate their emotions. Listen and help them to know it’s OK to be sad, mad etc..and help them to find healthy ways to deal with their emotions. Avoid parenting strategies that leave them to find ways to deal with their emotions alone.
- encourage activities that will prevent your child from being bored and welcome their friends in your home so that they are less likely to go out and seek something to do that may involve alcohol.
When you break it all down into points like this the similarities are easy to spot, whether you’re talking about sex, alcohol, friendships, homework or something else. It all boils down to authoritative, unjudgemental, empathic, open relationships with your children that focus on nurturing and support. As with any other aspect of parenting it isn’t about us, as parents, being perfect, but in being aware of our own behaviour and working to change it for the better too – as well as our child’s.
Having visited the DrinkAware site I *think* we’re on the right track. Drinking is much the same as any other parenting issue. It was nice however to have some validation and my eyes were certainly opened.
Underage drinking is far bigger and far more important an issue than I first realised. I’m looking forward to chatting with my sons more now I feel confident that I know what to do!
*Drinkaware is running a free webinar on 10/12/14 on how to address the issue of alcohol with your child and how to have effective conversations with them, click HERE to register.
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