How to talk to your children about alcohol

A major report shows high levels of underage drinking in England particularly.

Lauren Taylor
Thursday 25 April 2024 08:45 BST
Underage drinking is causing concern for experts (Alamy/PA)
Underage drinking is causing concern for experts (Alamy/PA)

The UK has a bigger problem with underage drinking than many other countries, according to a major new report.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) examined data from 280,000 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 44 countries who were asked about their use of alcohol, cigarettes and vapes.

It showed that children aged 11 and 13 in England were the most likely to have ever drunk alcohol, compared with youngsters in all the other countries surveyed. And rates of drunkenness in the UK were high, particularly among girls.

At age 11, England tops the global chart, with 34% of girls and 35% of boys saying they have drunk alcohol. By 13 years, 57% of girls and 50% of boys in England have drunk – again, higher than the other countries.

This early initiation into drinking is worrying for experts.

Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, says: “People tend to have this perception that introducing children to moderate drinking is a good way of teaching them safer drinking habits. This is untrue. The earlier a child drinks, the more likely they are to develop problems with alcohol in later life.”

So, how can parents have a positive influence on their child’s habits when it comes to alcohol?

Model behaviour from a young age

Young people may drink for several reasons, according to Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Priory consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, based at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford.

These include it being a way to change their emotions (for example, if they’re feeling stressed or sad), to fit in with their peers, or because “they see adults around them drinking to enjoy themselves or as a way to cope, so they think it’s a normal thing to do”, says van Zwanenberg. Even at a very young age, children watch what their parents do and internalise it as normal.

She suggests to think about your role as a parent in modelling how alcohol is used, adding: “Try to ensure young people do not see it as something you turn to when stressed.”

van Zwanenberg continues: “I would ideally begin discussions with young people at an early age about the negatives of alcohol. It is a toxin that is not beneficial for your body; it can change your reactions and emotions in unhelpful ways, it can become addictive quite quickly.”

Signs to watch out for

Teenagers will sometimes covertly drink even at home or out socially, she says. “I would try not to have alcohol left around the house, especially spirits, which can easily be replaced with water in the bottle to look like none has been drunk.

“If the young person is coming back smelling of alcohol or appearing erratic in their emotions or mood after being out with friends, this may be a sign they have drunk or taken something. They may dash up to their room to avoid you noticing.”

How to talk to them

If you find out your child has been drinking underage, try to react calmly and talk to them about this when they are calm, rather than when they’re intoxicated or in an emotional state, suggests van Zwanenberg. She also says to try to talk in a non-accusatory, non-emotional way.

“Having a discussion at the right time, in the right way is essential. Talking while walking, or in a car can be a good time, as eye contact can be avoided and there are less distractions or exit routes.”

It’s important to try and put yourself in their shoes and understand they are living with pressures we didn’t grow up with, like social media. “Perhaps ask how their friends are; is everyone coping OK with whatever stressors the young people have at present, and ask if anyone drinks much alcohol in their friendship group.”

Framing things in a positive way may mean they’re much more likely to feel safe, calm and able to open up and be honest, rather than “if they feel accused or under attack”.

van Zwanenberg adds: “Talk to them about how pleased you are they are sensible themselves and that you trust them to make wise decisions; how fortunate you feel and proud to be their parent.”

Get curious without being judgemental. “You can then ask them if they have tried alcohol or ever drunk much, how often they do it and how it makes them feel. Perhaps give them stories you know of other young people who have or have not made wise decisions. They may listen to these more than a ‘lecture about their own drinking’.

“Young people live up or down to expectations,” she explains, “so positive expectations are great. If you say, ‘I know you are drinking huge amounts, I knew you’d be stupid and let me down’, then they are far more likely to go out and follow the route you do not want them to take.”

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