Column: 7 things to know about teenage drinking (and how to deal with it)

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AS THE PARENT of teenage girls I am aware of the dangers of teenage drinking.

However, as I journey through the minefield that is parenting teens, I am more and more convinced that the strength of my relationship with them is ultimately the only real control I have over my teens.

I cannot force them to do what I want and I simply alienate them from me, so what is the alternative?

1. The importance of the parent   and relationships in the family

If the focus is on establishing a good relationship, good communication, some boundaries and setting a good example it will make a difference. If I give them the facts of drinking at an early age, give reasons not to drink and provide ways to avoid dangerous situations, it will help them to identify fun alternatives to drinking and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Knowing their friends ’ parents and keeping tabs on their activities is also important, in early/middle teen years especially.

2. Parents ’ own drinking

We have one of the worst incidences of underage binge drinking in the EU, and there can be a link to parents ’ attitude to their own drinking. Many teenagers when questioned say  ‘they can hardly lecture me ’ and this can have an influence on their attitude to drink.

Do we drink to excess? And if so, what message are we sending out to our teens? They are more likely to do what we do  – not do what we say. Awareness of our drinking (frequency/quantity) is important.

3. When do teens start drinking?

Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, recently reported that for school-age teens problems are most pronounced in third and fifth year. Third year was identified as the most vulnerable period.

Fifteen-year-old students are facing the Junior Cert, and it is the stage when most start drinking. The studies show that about half this age group are regular drinkers. Yet, almost half do not drink  – so what can we do to aid our young people in resisting peer pressure?  What can parents do to help?

The bottom line is to have a strong parent-child relationship, where you believe and trust in your child. Teens are more likely to delay drinking when they have a close, supportive tie with a parent who has had good communication with them around this issue. A good relationship with you is likely to influence your child to try to live up to your expectations. Warm and positive parenting ensures a child ’s self esteem and encourages a feeling of being happy with themselves.

4. Peer pressure

A good relationship with your teen makes it easier for them to withstand peer pressure. But the opposite is also true: when the relationship between parent and teen is full of conflict or distant, the teen is more likely to use alcohol.

Firm but appropriate expectations, backed up with explanations help them make sensible choices. If there is a history of alcoholism in the family, your child needs to know that for them, drinking carries extra risk.

5. Good communication is vital

Establish open communication  – do not preach, lecture, advise or moralise. Instead, encourage conversation by listening without interruption (something I find a challenge) by asking open ended questions like  “What do you think about teen drinking? ” Why does he/she think teenagers drink?

If you listen without interrupting, he/she will feel heard and respected, and you may learn something. Control your emotions. You may hear something you do not like, but take a few deep breaths and acknowledge your feelings in an honest way. Make every conversation a  ‘win-win ’ experience  – if you show respect for your teen ’s viewpoint, he/she will be more likely to show respect for yours.

6. Educate them on the dangers of alcohol

Give your child some facts about alcohol and good reasons not to drink. You want your child to avoid alcohol and establish consequences for breaking rules. Your values count with your child, even if they do not show it. They have probably witnessed other young people drunk and making a fool of themselves; say you want them to maintain self respect. Drinking can be dangerous. A leading cause of teen injuries and death is drink driving.

7. Teen drinking is dangerous

Alcohol lowers your inhibitions. Many drink as it makes them feel more relaxed and confident, but also makes people more vulnerable to sexual assault and unprotected sex. Underage drinking is illegal  – the parents of your child ’s friends may no longer permit them to associate with your child. Anyone can develop a serious alcohol problem, including a teenager.

Brainstorm difficult situations. Say  “if you find yourself anywhere you are not comfortable, you can call me and I will pick you up immediately  – and there will be no punishment ”.

Sheila O ’Malley runs  Practical Parenting,  which gives help, support and training to parents. She offers one day courses which run monthly, parenting talks for schools and companies, talks on cyber bullying and in  house corporate talks/workshops for working parents ’ groups.