Supervised teenage alcohol use at home is not a good idea


OPINION:HOW DO you effectively teach your children about alcohol? Minister of State with responsibility for Primary Care Róisín Shortall has said she felt parents should not be giving their children alcohol at home in an attempt to teach “responsible drinking”, and are sometimes permitting binge drinking at home to try to prevent it going on in unsupervised circumstances elsewhere.

In response, the spokeswoman for the National Parents’ Council has stated she felt that children should be taught about consuming alcohol in a safe and responsible environment, under parental observation, to encourage a healthy respect for the substance.

These are clearly very contrasting views regarding how to educate young people about alcohol; how to prevent them from drinking too much alcohol outside the home, and how to prevent the dreadful epidemic of binge-drinking and its harmful consequences from getting worse.

It is no secret that this massive rise in alcohol consumption in Ireland over the last 15 years has produced many negative consequences, including a decrease in the average age of onset of drinking, an increase in suicide (particularly among young men), and an overall doubling of the death rate from alcohol-related disorders.

Education of vulnerable young people is a major component of trying to turn the tide of the epidemic, and Ms Shortall is to be commended for beginning a national debate on this scourge and for starting to address the issue.

She will shortly publish a report from the Strategic Group on Alcohol which will outline the extent of the problems and make recommendations on what can be done to effectively intervene in them.

A look at the relevant research is critical to developing an informed approach on this issue.

In a recent article, a group of researchers in the US compared the behaviour of 1,000 teenagers in Washington State with a similar number in Victoria, Australia. The activities of the youngsters were tracked over three years.

Washington State has a generally restrictive policy toward teenage drinking. It has a legal minimum age limit of 21 years and has laws that promote abstinence and zero-tolerance for underage drinking.

Australia has a much more Irish culture towards drinking, with 50 per cent of adolescents obtaining alcohol from their parents, a government policy that suggests alcohol use is a normal part of adolescent development, and a focus upon the concept of harm minimisation rather than zero tolerance of alcohol.

Not surprisingly, the teenagers in Australia drank earlier and more than their counterparts in Washington State, with a subsequent major increase in use of alcohol as they got older.

The critical factor regarding this study was that it compared the effects of how teenage alcohol use was supervised in the cultures.

The finding in both environments was that supervised alcohol use in the family setting led to a highly significant increase both in alcohol use and in harmful alcohol use by the time children reached their late teens.

Instead of producing a responsible attitude to alcohol, drinking alcohol at home led to an increase in drinking outside the home.

Instead of teenagers taking on a mature attitude, they took parental permission to drink in moderation as permission to drink more heavily with their friends.

This increase in drinking was similar in both cultural contexts. These findings indeed contradicted the researchers’ hypothesis about the effects of supervised alcohol use at home: they were surprised at what they discovered.

Another study, this time evaluating all of the research done on influences that have a bearing on teenage drinking, found a total of 77 studies and evaluated them.

This group found there were many parental techniques to reduce adolescent consumption of alcohol, including not making alcohol available to children; an attitude of disapproval of adolescent drinking; good parental drinking behaviour; good parental monitoring of children; good communication, and good parent-child relationships.

The research appears to support Ms Shortall’s attitude to supervised alcohol use at home – it is not a good idea, despite the fact it may appear to be at first glance.

As part of the fight of ordinary parents and of society to stop the problems associated with excessive alcohol use, the Minister’s stance is a good place to start.

Overcoming Alcohol Misuse: a 28-day Guide
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