The end of year festivities are just around the corner and many families are getting ready to celebrate. Over Christmas and New Year, some adults may choose to drink and some may choose not to, for a variety of reasons. However, we are particularly interested in how young people might choose to celebrate during the Christmas and New Year period. Our Encounter Youth Education™ program has many great opportunities to talk with parents through the year about busting some of the biggest myths around young people and celebrating but sometimes this can provoke some interesting follow-up questions. One parent recently came up and asked: “I let my children try alcohol for the first time during Christmas drinks, it was only one drink – this is okay right?”.
Figuring out the do’s and don’ts of parenting can at times can seem unmanageable and we definitely do not want to add to the ever increasing pressure of parenting. However, through our experience with young people and having our heads in research all year round we have gathered up some information about the truths and myths of teaching young people about ‘responsible drinking’.
Young People Trying A Bit During Christmas Drinks Isn’t A Big Deal, Right?
There is a fairly common belief that if parents introduce their children to alcohol in a controlled setting, it will teach them to drink responsibly. Whilst the intention behind this behaviour is to protect their child from alcohol-related harm, early introduction to alcohol through something like Christmas drinks can actually increase the risk for young people. Recent research shows that even the provision of ‘sips’ of alcohol can lead to increased alcohol consumption among young people. Parents who supplied their young person with alcohol between 13 and 16 years increased their young person’s risk of consuming a full drink of alcohol at age 16 by 80%1. One drink or even a few ‘sips’ can actually increase a young person’s risk of underage drinking. In response to a wealth of research about the risks posed by underage drinking, the Australian alcohol guidelines state that for people under the age of 18, no alcohol is the safest option2. The challenge that parents often face, however, is that in Australian culture, alcohol is frequently considered as an integral part of celebrating and is ‘normal’ in that context. This ‘social norm’ creates a problem for young people who may be involved in those celebrations but not permitted to drink.
Social Norms: Young Person See, Young Person Do
Young people are constantly observing what authority figures such as parents are saying and doing. This helps to shape what young people see as ‘normal’ and this, in turn, shapes their behaviour. These observations can also serve to discredit the messages that are communicated to young people about alcohol.
For example, in one study, a young person expressed frustration at the perceived hypocrisy of parents telling their children not to drink, saying: “…I hate it when parents say to their kids ‘don’t drink’, when they drink. Like, it’s sort of like “do as I say, not as I do”3. Whilst there may be legitimate reasons why parents may have some Christmas drinks but do not permit their children to do so, these reasons need to be clearly communicated to the young people involved. The best option, however, is for parents to model the healthy behaviours they want to see in their children. Moderation or elimination of alcohol by parents has been shown to reduce alcohol consumption in young people and this effect continues for a significant portion of a young person’s life4. In addition, parenting style can be integral to forming a young person’s attitude and behaviour towards alcohol.
How People Parent Matters
Much of the research around alcohol, other drugs and parenting focuses on two factors: demands that parents place on their child and parents’ responsiveness to, or support for, their child’s opinions and behaviours. The combination of these two factors creates four broad parenting styles, as illustrated in the figure below.
Parents may lean towards a particular style, or they may be firmly established as one particular style over all the others. When it comes to many issues, including alcohol use, authoritative parenting is the style that has the strongest support. It has been shown to be effective at reducing or problematic alcohol use in young people5. Authoritative parenting involves establishing boundaries that clearly state what is and is not acceptable, but acknowledges that a child needs to be able to make their own decisions as well6. The combination of autonomy, with clear rules and expectations, helps a young person to explore their opinions and beliefs and take risks, within acceptable boundaries. Authoritative parenting has been linked to improved wellbeing and lower levels of underage drinking5.
Honesty And Authenticity Are Vital!
A key component when talking to young people about alcohol, whether it’s from parents or other adults or educators, is honesty. Young people are often far more perceptive and have far greater ability to detect exaggeration or lies than they are given credit for. If the message that parents or educators send to young people about drinking is perceived by the young person to be “irrelevant, lacking in authenticity, [or] is overly critical…then the message is likely to be rejected or resisted.”3. If parents and educators want young people to believe them, they need to be honest and not resort to stretching the truth or employing scare tactics to try and prevent young people taking risks. Focusing on the positive choices that young people are making and providing clear, factual information about risks and consequences is far more likely to be effective at shaping more positive behaviour.
If Christmas drinks are planned for the family celebrations, it may be necessary have a conversation with your young person about why young people are encouraged not to drink. Alternatively, it may be a good opportunity to have a discussion with the wider family about the role of alcohol in the Christmas celebrations and to consider whether it should be part of those celebrations at all. For some families, this may be possible, for others it may be too big a challenge. Either way, clear and honest communication with your young person will be helpful in establishing what boundaries are in place and why.
1. Mattick, R., Wadolowski, M., Aiken, A., Clare, P., Hutchinson, D., Najman, J., Slade, T., Bruno, R., McBride, N., Degenhardt, L., and Kypri, K., 2016, “Parental supply of alcohol and alcohol consumption in adolescence: prospective cohort study”, Psychological Medicine, in press, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291716002373
2. National Health and Medical Research Council, 2009, “Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol”, NHMRC: Canberra
3. Borlagdan, J., Freeman, T., Duvnjak, A., Lunnay, B., Bywood, P., and Roche, A., 2010, “From ideal to reality: cultural contradictions and young people’s drinking“, National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, Flinders University, Adelaide
4. Ryan, S., Jorm, A., and Lubman, D., 2010, “Parenting factors associated with reduced adolescent alcohol use: a systematic review of longitudinal studies”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44 (9), 774-783
5. Steinberg, L., 2001, “We know some things: parent-adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect”, Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11 (1), 1-19
6. Ward, B., and Snow, P., 2008, “The role of families in preventing alcohol-related harm among young people”, Prevention Research Quarterly, 5