Teens allowed to drink alcohol by parents far more likely to suffer harm

Evidence contradicts the myth that supervised alcohol intake among children would automatically lead to healthy consumption

Brian Wall, guidance counsellor St Mary’s Secondary School, Rathmines, Dublin, and Marion Rackard, project manager with the HSE Alcohol Programme, at the launch of Alcohol and Drugs: A Parent’s Guide. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Brian Wall, guidance counsellor St Mary’s Secondary School, Rathmines, Dublin, and Marion Rackard, project manager with the HSE Alcohol Programme, at the launch of Alcohol and Drugs: A Parent’s Guide. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

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Teenagers who receive parental permission to drink alcohol are far more likely to suffer harm, a leading child psychiatrist has said.

Dr Bobby Smyth, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Health Service Executive (HSE), said evidence contradicts the “Mediterranean” myth that supervised alcohol intake among children in Ireland would automatically lead to healthy consumption.

He said while this was often the case in some countries - like Greece where public drunkenness is socially taboo - it would not necessarily translate to Ireland.

“It would be wonderful if it was true,” he said, “but that’s just not what the evidence shows.”

Dr Smyth was speaking following the launch of the HSE’s Alcohol and Drugs: A Parent’s Guide.

“There is this notion [among some Irish people] that in France they give alcohol to their kids with dinner...and it takes the drama or mystique out of it. But there is just no evidence to back that up.”

On the contrary, he said research had found permissive drinking could have ill-effects.

In 2015, a study by Cork students Ian O’Sullivan and Eimear Murphy - which won the BT Young Scientist competition - found that children of parents who believe it acceptable for them to drink on special occasions were up to four times more likely to engage in hazardous drinking than other adolescents. Dr Smyth said these findings were complimented by studies in the US and Australia.

“It would be wonderful to think that we could inoculate our children from a pro-drinking culture that we are surrounded by,” he said.

Other research has found the parents most likely to be so permissive were themselves regular drinkers, from higher socio-economic groups and with positive health behaviour in other parts of their lives.

Brains

The HSE guide stresses the importance of ongoing, quality engagement with children, particularly around the area of substance use.

“Research shows that having a strong bond with their parents is one of the things that protects kids when it comes to alcohol and drugs,” it said.

While many young people experiment without suffering any serious harm, it says, this can be acknowledged while also discussing the “very real and sometimes tragic consequences”.

Children’s brains develop from the age of 12 into their mid-20s, but can be impaired by substance use.

Among the risks highlighted in the document are vandalism and fighting, accidents, risky sexual behaviour and getting in trouble with gardaí. It also highlights the possibility of doing badly at school, harmful impact on relationships, mental health problems and even suicide.

Brian Wall, a guidance councillor at St Mary’s Secondary School in Rathmines, Dublin, said while alcohol consumption among teenagers had become normal, it should not necessarily be accepted as such.

“If we study why kids don’t drink it’s just as interesting,” he said. “Some of them will say...I don’t want to upset my parents. That means the bond with the parents is stronger than the pressures from the peers.

“Other kids will say: I don’t need to drink. Now that’s a kid with strong self-esteem.”

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