Along with the family, fun, food and general good times that might come to mind, for many of us, social events and holidays also involve some level of alcohol consumption.
It’s not a new phenomenon – in fact it is often seen as part of our social fabric – the ‘boys at the barbie with a beer’ or ‘Mum having a chardie with the girls’. Beyond the stereotypes though, alcohol consumption happens at a whole spectrum of levels, from a family enjoying an occasional glass of wine with dinner or to toast a special occasion, to the problematic level of alcoholism. For a long time, most of the varied levels of consumption – apart from chronic alcoholism – were viewed as a perfectly acceptable part of society. More recently however, binge drinking, particularly among young people, and the associated violent behaviour, risky sexual activity and motor vehicle accidents, have brought our culture of drinking to the forefront of media and social research.
While parents have always had to consider alcohol among the other challenges associated with their children’s transition into adulthood, they are increasingly facing the dilemma earlier, and being forced to consider how they will deal with the situation for their children. Unfortunately there are as yet no clear cut answers for parents, though we now know enough to make some evidence-based recommendations.
Parents often cite a ‘European approach’ in which children are introduced to small sips or diluted drinks of alcohol as part of family meals from quite a young age. Traditionally, this approach has been associated with cultures where wine is an integral part of a meal, but where binge drinking is less common and drunkenness is rare. Increasingly, even in these cultures, binge drinking among youth populations is rising (Gilligan, Kuntsche, et al., 2012). An important consideration in taking this approach is whether in fact the ‘European model’ can work when children are exposed to the Australian culture in which drinking patterns are very different.
The jury is still out about the potential long-term risks of allowing children to try alcohol at home under supervision. While small amounts of alcohol in such supervised circumstances are not likely to increase children’s propensity to drink heavily later, the evidence so far suggests that despite the best intentions of parents, this practice doesn’t protect children from risky drinking in other circumstances (Gilligan, Kypri, et al., 2012).
The evidence is clearer regarding allowing adolescents to drink in unsupervised circumstances and providing alcohol to take to parties or to drink outside the home. It is this type of drinking that is likely to be associated with risky behaviour, violence and the dangers that parents fear for their children. The challenge for parents though, is how to avoid these situations, or to protect their children from being exposed to drinking at supervised or unsupervised social events.
It seems that ‘everyone is doing it’, which can make it particularly challenging for parents to take a stand against drinking or attending parties. Many parents remember the social pressure from their own teenage years – the desire to conform and to be accepted by peers. This memory is fresh enough and real enough to make it really difficult to force their children to be different or to prevent them from being part of social activities. Not wanting children to be ‘socially outcast’ is the driver for many parents who allow drinking or at least turn a blind eye to it (Gilligan & Kypri, 2012).
With our busy lifestyles and long work hours, as well as the large year groups that are the norm in many high schools, it is difficult for parents to have any connection or relationship with the parents of their children’s friends. Often the requests to go to parties or social events come from friends or peers whose parents have never met personally. While this is a perfectly understandable situation, whenever parents are getting messages about what their friends are doing or what their friends’ parents allow from their children alone, with no direct connection between the parents, a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ is going on. It is unlikely that parents are receiving an entirely accurate story in this way.
We are starting to generate evidence that parents tend to think that other parents are more liberal than they are themselves, and that such a view is associated with an increased likelihood of providing adolescents with alcohol. Perhaps then, it’s parents who are prone to social pressure – to some extent conforming with what they think is the norm.
It seems that one simple approach to helping parents tackle these challenges is to talk to each other. Finding time to do that can be challenging, and after-hours parent events at school are difficult to fit into the family diary. Technology and social media offer ways for parents to ‘talk’ in the comfort of their own home whenever they can find time. We have created the Hunter Parents Alcohol Forum so that parents can join a closed group to share experience, ask for advice and find out how others are dealing with similar situations. The forum is also a way of sharing existing information and resources with parents. The discussion group provides parents with an opportunity to share views and ideas, in a private, accessible and respectful environment.
Parents of children aged 13-17 attending schools in the Hunter can become involved in our research and have their input heard by completing an online survey and/or joining the private Facebook group (so your kids can’t see what is being discussed). Those not part of this demographic can still show support by liking our Facebook page. We are also available on Twitter @HunterPAF.
Being a parent of an adolescent is not easy but you’re not alone!
- Gilligan, C., Kuntsche, E., and Gmel, G. (2012). Adolescent Drinking Patterns Across Countries: Associations with Alcohol Policies. Alcohol and Alcoholism.
- Gilligan, C., and Kypri, K. (2012). Parent attitudes, family dynamics and adolescent drinking: qualitative study of the Australian parenting guidelines for adolescent alcohol use. BMC Public Health, 12(1), 491.
- Gilligan, C., Kypri, K., Johnson, N., Lynagh, M., and Love, S. (2012). Parental supply of alcohol and adolescent risky drinking. Drug Alcohol Rev, 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2012.00418.x.