This is a question that Encounter Youth’s educators often put to both parents and high school students in our Alcohol & Other Drug education program. The correct answer, according to the largest survey of alcohol and other drug use in high school students, is 5%.
If you over-estimated the number, you’re in good company. The majority of people we talk to think that 30-50% of 14-year-olds describe themselves as party drinkers. But the reality is that the number of high school-aged young people and young adults choosing not to drink has been steadily rising for almost 20 years now.
Encounter Youth shares this with every student and parent who we speak to in our program. For students, this encourages those that are choosing not to drink to know they are completely normal.
For parents, our hope is they find reassurance that there is significant progress in this area and despite what popular media will have us believe, more and more young people are making healthy choices about alcohol and parties.
However, there are still a number who choose to drink, particularly later in high school, with party drinkers comprising 30% of students by the age of 17. These young people are often drinking at a level that puts them at risk of injury and are at risk of making some choices they may later regret.
Young people are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of alcohol, and the biggest reason for this is their stage of brain development. Young people’s brains are still developing well into their 20’s and this means that they tend to focus on emotions and rewards, rather than an assessment of risk.
Young people are wired to take risks and try new things. It’s a natural and completely necessary part of development which allows young people to establish their independence and cope with the constant change that occurs in adolescence and young adulthood. The problem is that when alcohol or other drugs are involved, that tendency to take risks and try new things is enhanced even more than usual.
Encouragingly, decades of research on this topic has shown that even throughout high school, parents (or parent figures) are still one of the greatest influences on a young person’s decisions around alcohol, other drugs and parties.
So, What Can Parents Do?
Firstly, consider your own role-modelling. What is your relationship with alcohol? If you are a drinker, simply turning down a drink for no apparent reason (particularly in an environment you would normally drink) can show your young person that everybody has a choice.
When it comes to parties, stopping young people from attending is not a viable option, so it’s important to a) have a conversation and b) have a safety net.
Listed below are some of the things we discuss in our parent programs, which are delivered alongside our student seminars. This allows parents and their young people to receive consistent information which can serve as a common ground to begin those ongoing conversations.
For parents talking to their young person about alcohol, other drugs and parties…
Once of the most prominent areas where parents express concern to us is in the lead up to end-of-year ‘Schoolies’ celebrations for Year 12s. As the organisation that leads the community response to these celebrations in South Australia, we encourage parents to:
Above all, we encourage parents to know that research consistently demonstrates that parents have far more influence on their young people than they realise. In fact, an open, healthy and supportive parent relationship is one of the strongest protectors against alcohol and other drugs throughout all of high school.
Through all the eye-rolling, single-word responses, grunting communication, or “you don’t understand…”, young people still value their relationship and their parent’s support—they just don’t often communicate that with their parents!