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Alexander Residence: How do you talk about alcohol with kids?

Monday, 24 October 2011

How do you talk about alcohol with kids?

As he stares out across the Thames, into the city that was my playground in my 20s, I can't help but wonder what he will be like when he is older.  What will he do? Where will he live? Who will his friends be?

After attending a Drinkaware event in London with my son - hence the snaps - I'm also now wondering what kind of drinker will he be?

It may sound early to be wondering these things, but after participating in the Drinkaware debate about kids and alcohol I've realised children are aware of alcohol from a very early age. As young as 8 they may develop ideas about the kind of drinker they will be.

Only in the last week my 5 year old daughter told me wine makes grown ups silly (not I might add from observation), asked me what a spirit measure was for, and wanted to know why someone had left a half drunk beer bottle in the street. She is aware and curious.

Only 17% of adults have a plan about how to talk about alcohol with their children, but evidence shows parents have the most influence on young people's attitudes to alcohol. Interestingly this is especially true if parents start conversations early, before the teenage years when peers become a much bigger influence.

Talking about alcohol doesn't have to be a daunting 'big talk'.  Drinkaware suggest their are four stages:
  • Age 8-10 is about awareness, when answering questions like 'Why do you drink?' by explaining that drinking is for adults and has both social and negative sides is appropriate.  
  • At age 9-12 curiosity kicks in and questions like 'What does being drunk feel like?' could be answered by talking about the impact of alcohol on the body and the difference between moderation and abuse. 
  • By ages 11-14 children may be experimenting, given that the average first unsupervised drink now occurs at 13.8 years.  This is good time to talk about peer pressure, to provide 'get out' strategies, and to discuss and agree rules and consequences together.  
  • Between 13-17 children may have tested their limits and may consider themselves experienced. Now is the time to provide tips on staying safe and to agree that if they get in a difficult situation they can call home no questions asked.
Drinkers are often very good at telling stories about alcohol related incidents, but not at talking honestly. It's easy to feel hypocritical as a parent, drink in one hand whilst preaching abstinence with the other. But as long as children see drinking in moderation, there's no need to feel hypocritical. Research shows that children learn about the kind of drinker they will be by watching their parents.

The biggest myth breaker for me, was of 'continental' drinking. Apparently there is no scientific evidence that allowing children to have a small amount to try gives them a responsible attitude in later life. In fact, research shows the earlier a child starts drinking, the higher the chances of developing alcohol abuse or dependence. Current medical advice is not to let children drink until 16.

The increase in 30/40 something parents drinking 'home measures' has meant many people underestimate the amount they drink. I thought I was pretty clued up until I checked my home gin measure with the measuring cup Drinkaware gave me. What I thought was somewhere between 1-2 units turned out to be a triple. It's no wonder that I am usually asleep on the sofa after one homemade G and T. Given that 2-3 units per day is the guideline amount for women, I will now be reaching for the spirit measure.

The top tips I picked up from the event were:
  • The worst thing you can do is say nothing.
  • The best thing you can do is have many open, early discussions which develop as your child grows.
  • Don't expect your child's school to pass on the message, alcohol is not a compulsory part of the curriculum.  (I still shudder at all the absent marks I put on the register for the kids in my tutor group who missed the one PSHE sex education lesson of the year).
  • Start conversations early, while children are still receptive to parental influence, 8-11 is a great time. 
  • In Newquay, where every year around 4000 young people gather after their GCSEs, to drink with sometimes tragic consequences, a police campaign centred on encouraging dignity and looking out for your mates.  These approaches worked very successfully with teenagers.
  • Help kids find a get out clause. It might be a Saturday morning drama or sports team they need to be hangover free for. Or knowing which drinks are lowest in alcohol.
  • Make your approach appeal to your individual child. A specific fact  e.g. for one mum telling her son 'cannabis shrinks your testicles' was enough. For another girl a newspaper article about a girl who lost her best friend to alcohol was influential.  
  • Building confidence and self esteem helps children to say no in a range of situations and to be able to stand up to peer pressure.  
  • Drink discussions don't have to be doom and gloom, the last thing many teenagers want to hear is scare stories. Alcohol has good and bad sides and both of these need to feature in conversations.
  • Get measure aware and make young people aware of different types of drink and mixer.
  • Agree the rules and consequences as a family and stick to them. Wavering because of a special event sends out mixed messages.
  • Don't be afraid to say that alcohol is for adults because children's bodies can't deal with it in the same way yet. Stress there are rules about alcohol for grown ups too.
What can you do if your children are still under 8?  Well you're probably doing it already, research shows being a warm loving parent, nurturing confidence and self esteem make children less likely to drink early and help them to keep sensible boundaries into middle age.

How do you talk to your children about alcohol? Have you got a plan?


Parents Drinkaware have great resources on the parent's section of their site, including a video where you can shape/practise tricky conversations with a 13 year old about alcohol.  You can also order the parents' leaflet Your Kids and Alcohol.  You can also make your child's school aware of these great resources for schools:

Teachers can get free primary and secondary lesson plans.  The programme In:tutition aims to build the esteem, confidence and decision-making skills of students aged 9 to 14 so they can make more informed decisions about a range of issues – including alcohol, sex and relationships and health.  The website has an explanatory video and schools can contact In:tution if they are interested in training or being one of the Drinkaware pilot schools.

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At 24 October 2011 at 11:52 , Anonymous Kez Bratt said...

I remember a 20ish someone who was asleep on the sofa after a small baileys ;)

At 24 October 2011 at 13:59 , Blogger minibreakmummy said...

Very interesting post - thank you

At 24 October 2011 at 15:18 , Blogger Expat mum said...

Great post. I think you can do a lot with your own behaviour. I have no problem having a glass of wine or two in the house in front of my kids, but they never see me drunk (because I don't tend to drink enough to get drunk) and I never "plan" a hangover or indeed have a hangover.
It helps that in the States, the drinking age is 21. I actually think it's a ridiculously high minimum age, but it's good for stopping them drinking in their mid-teens. They can't really argue with the fact that it's illegal, they'll get kicked out of school, never get into college etc.

At 24 October 2011 at 19:36 , Anonymous Midlife Singlemum said...

I agree that talking to your children about alcohol is essential well before they find themselves in situations where they have to make choices.

At 24 October 2011 at 20:20 , Blogger The Alexander Residence said...

Kez - yep, it seems I learnt moderation early, that or I have always been a lightweight.
minibreakmummy - glad you found it useful.
Expat mum - we talked about the UK/US differences on the day, it seems to make a big difference. But like you point out 21 is high, it's hard to justify 21 to people who are old enough to be married and have kids at 16!
MLSM - That was a biggest message on the day, and that it doesn't have to be scary!

At 24 October 2011 at 20:31 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did drink alcohol before a was 18 and got drunk on many occasions as a teenager. However, when I turned 30 I was diagnosed with epilepsy and stopped drinking. My husband has never touched a drop in his life. I suspect Amy won't be interested as she obviously never sees either of us drink alcohol. We therefore don't have any in the house. She may experiment when she's older but she certainly won't be drinking at home.

At 24 October 2011 at 20:40 , Blogger The Alexander Residence said...

Hello CJ - that's an interesting case, but I'm told not so unusual, apparently something like a quarter of adults don't drink. Another statistic that surprised me, it's so often assumed that everyone drinks.

At 25 October 2011 at 11:51 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm already aware the a glass of wine is already way too normalised in this household. I'm trying to use it more sparingly!


At 25 October 2011 at 15:45 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

So many interesting points. Really surprised me about the continental drinking!
GREAT post x

At 25 October 2011 at 19:37 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. I like the realistic side of it. ie: don't try to preach abstinence, but talk about safe limits, get outs, etc.

At 25 October 2011 at 20:08 , Anonymous Honest Mum said...

Thank you for this and destifying the continental introduction of alcohol at an early age. This is one I hear a lot as a 2nd generation British Greek.

I actually developed a documentary about drinking a while back and it's shocking how much of a problem underage drinking is. Unlike cigarette warnings on packets, there are none on alcohol bottles. I really hope this is something that might change.

At 25 October 2011 at 22:51 , Blogger The Alexander Residence said...

M2M - that's you and me both after realising what was in my measures.
Jo - you summed it up 'realistic', definitely.
Honest Mum - would love to see the documentary, is it online? Absolutely true, apart from warnings to pregnant women bottles don't say much do they?

At 25 October 2011 at 23:30 , Blogger Him Up North said...

The British drinking culture can, in my view, be linked into various socio-economic factors: the rituals of the British classes and the initial stranglehold and subsequent free-for-all in the alcohol industry being two major ones. In both these we do indeed differ from the continent and it will take a paradigm shift to change that.

Easiest way to reduce alcohol abuse: make it too expensive.

At 26 October 2011 at 13:28 , Blogger kateab said...

Great post. Monkey once stood in the supermarket and asked in a loud voice if we were buying "dirty beer". He gets that from his grandmother.

Luckily, neither of us are big drinkers and what does get drunk tends to happen when they are in bed. Only occasionally, if they stay up late or we have a more special occasion, do they see either of us drinking alcohol. Which is very different to my own upbringing as my parents went out drinking every weekend from when I was a youngish age.

At 26 October 2011 at 20:35 , Blogger The Alexander Residence said...

Thanks Kate. Dirty beer! It's funny what they pick up on, the littlest things they say can lead into useful conversations about alcohol though.

At 26 October 2011 at 20:39 , Blogger The Alexander Residence said...

Him Up North - very articulate for that time of night, I guess you hadn't been drinking? I keep hearing the argument for raising the prices so much. We talked about the marketing too, some of it is far too appealing to young people, and at pocket money prices...


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