Lock the drinks cabinet!
When and how should you let your children start drinking alcohol? The law is black and white but the social life of a teenager is less clear cut. With kids drinking more and starting ever younger, Joanna Moorhead offers advice to perplexed parents.
It's 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, and with just hours to go until party-time, Sarah Wilson is stocking up on booze at the supermarket. From the look of her trolley, which is laden with wine, lager and cider, it's going to be quite an evening: but Sarah won't be touching a drop. The alcohol is for her daughter, Madeleine, 16, who is having her friends over for a pre-Christmas bash. Sarah will spend the evening upstairs, on tenterhooks, praying that none of the teenagers will get too paralytic, and that the house will be left intact when it's all over.
What Sarah is doing isn't illegal - an adult isn't breaking the law in giving alcohol to a child, provided he or she is over the age of five and that the drink is consumed at home. And it isn't unusual - surveys show that at least 50% of the alcohol teenagers drink is supplied by parents. If you include alcohol supplied unintentionally, the figure is even higher: I can't be the only parent who has gone to pour herself a gin and tonic, only to find that the gin bottle has been emptied and topped up with water.
But under-18s aren't allowed to buy alcohol, which is why some people would condemn Sarah for giving it to her daughter. Indeed, her severest critics would accuse her of being a "pusher", since alcohol is the commonest drug among British teenagers.
Sarah, however, believes she is being responsible: "Last time Madeleine had a party, her friends brought their own booze. Madeleine drank so much that she was sick and her friends were throwing up all over the place, too. By providing the alcohol myself, I'm making sure the drinks aren't too strongly alcoholic, and I'm limiting the amount of booze. Madeleine and her friends are going to find a way to drink somehow or other."
A report last month from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), paints a disturbing picture of alcohol and children in the UK. Parents, it says, are aware of the problems surrounding young people and alcohol consumption, but fail to recognise that their own children are at risk. The study, Use of Alcohol Among Children and Young People, found that many parents have ambivalent attitudes towards teenage drinking, usually because they are drinkers themselves: "Many young people are ill or misinformed [about alcohol] as messages and information about drinking come largely from vested-interest drinkers around them," it says. "Many feel they lose the overarching protection of parents and carers at a time when they need intervention."
What is more, the report suggests that young people are ill-served by myths peddled by the adults closest to them: chiefly, the idea that getting drunk from time to time is almost inevitable, so parents turn a blind eye to binge-drinking, seeing it as a sign of entirely normal adolescent rebellion. Another myth it identified is that the "continental model", under which children are introduced to alcohol early in life, is best - which doesn't take into account that binge-drinking is becoming a problem among the young of continental Europe.
In effect, the report accuses parents of burying their heads in the sand. Meanwhile, the British Liver Trust reported last week that alcohol-related liver failure among 25 to 29-year-olds was up by 40% in just one year - one of the strongest pointers yet towards the embryonic and potentially devastating problem of heavy drinking among young people. In May this year, another survey found that 30% of 15-year-olds believe it's fine to get drunk at least once a week.
But it isn't fine. Apart from the risk of liver damage in the years ahead, there's the more immediate risk of accidents. In 2006-7, one in 10 of the soaring number of alcohol-related hospital admissions was a young person under 18. In the 16 to 24 age group, alcohol is involved in 27% of all male deaths and 15% of all female deaths, the biggest single factor in mortality in this age group.
A straw poll among my friends, all mothers of teenagers, reveals an alarming number of stories of the "there but for the grace of God" variety. "Last New Year's Eve, Hannah, who was 15, went into town with a couple of her friends to celebrate," says Mary. "I told her to be careful about drinking too much, but at 2am I got a call from one of her friends to say she had fallen over and couldn't get up and that the St John's Ambulance people were taking her to hospital. I was frantic. Because of the traffic it took ages to get to the hospital to collect her and bring her home."
Another teenager was admitted to hospital with hypothermia after she collapsed on a park bench while out drinking late at night. "The worst of it was that the friends who were with her didn't have the experience to realise how bad it was," says Stella, her mother. "These children are going out and drinking lethal amounts of alcohol without realising how dangerous it is and the people who are with them - their friends - are drinking as well, and on top of that don't have the skills to recognise when things are out of hand."
Dr Nick Sheron, a leading liver specialist at Southampton University trust hospital, thinks our obsession with alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour is masking a much deeper danger, which is alcohol-linked teenage deaths. "It's a colossal tragedy, and we're simply not addressing it properly," he says. Parents worry about their children getting meningitis and cancer, "but the reality is that alcohol outweighs everything else," he says.
Sheron blames the drinks industry, which he regards as having directly fuelled the current crisis. "Until the mid-1990s, drinking levels among teenagers were stable. Then it started going down in older teenagers, and in the late 1990s there was a massive push to ramp up alcohol advertising and to angle it in the direction of youngsters. The industry tried to push drinking as a cool, new thing for young people. The campaign was really successful - it succeeded in turning around the fact that alcohol consumption among the young was going out of fashion."
In 2004, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, announced a major crackdown on the selling of alcohol to under-18s, following a survey that found half of all pubs and a third of all off-licences were doing it. The problem for parents was that by then a culture of drinking had taken hold among teenagers. "What it meant," says Richard Hart, who has two daughters aged 20 and 17, "is that whereas my older daughter had been able to sit quietly with her mates in a bar and drink, provided they behaved themselves, after the crackdown my younger daughter was left with nowhere to go, apart from open spaces such as parks. If the government was serious about promoting a culture of responsible drinking, they should have found another way because this left young people exposed to drinking in risky places where there were no adults around."
Now the government seems primed to act again. The chief medical officer has been asked to draw up a new set of guidelines on young people and alcohol, which will be issued next year. Exactly what the guidelines will cover isn't clear, but Alcohol Concern believes they will pinpoint a minimum age for drinking, as well as how much it is sensible for youngsters to drink.
It's likely to be controversial, particularly given that evidence seems to be mounting in other parts of the world that drinking among young people is even more dangerous than was previously thought. The Australian government recently concluded from medical and other evidence that there is no "safe" amount of alcohol for young people, and that under-18s should never drink to become intoxicated. In the US, meanwhile, research is increasingly revealing how vulnerable the teenage brain is to the effects of alcohol. This growing body of evidence is behind a new caution, issued by the US government's alcohol research unit two months ago, warning that exposure to alcohol at an early age could increase a child's chances of becoming a heavy drinker. It followed a study of 22,000 Americans which found that having a first taste of alcohol at under 15 raises dramatically the risk of alcohol dependency in later life. One theory is that the teenage brain is developing so fast that exposure to intoxicants can quickly create a link between alcohol consumption and pleasure, so youngsters learn to turn to drink whenever they feel a bit low.
In this country, experts have tended to believe that it's the amount of alcohol a young person consumes, as well as the age of first exposure, that is significant. Even so, says John Castleton, a psychologist who specialises in substance misuse, there is a clear correlation with any drug between early use and a tendency for it to become problematic. He believes that at least some of the issues involving alcohol and young people are linked with changing patterns of drinking among parents. In previous generations, parents were less likely to drink alcohol in the home. Fathers tended to drink, if anywhere, in pubs, and mothers were less likely to drink at all. "For the current generation of young people, alcohol use has been normalised in the home, and that is bound to have had repercussions," he says.
This has led, in turn, to difficulties for parents trying to be consistent in their message. "There's plenty of research that shows young people get irritated when their parents say, 'You shouldn't be doing this' and it's not consistent with their own behaviour," says Castleton.
As I have watched my own teenage daughter experimenting with alcohol, I have wondered about the messages I have been giving her for the past 16 years. For as long as she can remember, I've been opening a bottle of wine for visiting girlfriends at 7pm and generally giving the impression that this is how grown-up women like to relax. So, can I really blame any one else for the fact that, on the verge of adulthood, my daughter is inviting her friends round for vodka and Coke in her bedroom?
For most young people, says Castleton, alcohol consumption won't be problematic. What parents need to do, however, is teach children about limits and the enjoyment of alcohol within certain parameters, and it's in this educational role, more than anything, that we seem to be failing. Parents' attitudes, behaviour and messages, he says, are likely to be much more influential than formal education on alcohol.
Professor Mark Bellis, director of public health at Liverpool John Moores University and a leading expert on young people and alcohol, says parents need to talk to their children a lot more about drinking - and they need to start talking sooner. "By the time young people start to drink, they already have a whole lot of ideas about what drinking is, and many of them have come from advertising and the internet."
And that leads to misinformation. One survey earlier this year, for example, found that 30% of children think that it's normal drinking behaviour for adults to drink five-plus glasses of wine a night, and that beer drinkers regularly get through six bottles an evening. "Communication is crucial," says Bellis. "Children need to learn about alcohol and they need correct information."
As a society, we have allowed young people to be preyed on by the drinks industry, and then - having got them hooked - we have banished them to street corners to drink unsupervised. There is clearly work to be done at government level, but within families we parents must start talking honestly about drink and what it means to us. It's not so much about offering wine when they are young, as talking to them about why we drink and about what is - and isn't - acceptable where alcohol is concerned.
Drink and children: What you need to know.
• Most of the alcohol teenagers drink comes from home. If you have alcohol in your house, keep track of it. Be aware that teenagers tend to gather for drinking sessions in houses where parents have gone out or away and that, where alcohol is concerned, your teenager may not be telling you the whole truth.
• Don't wait until your child is 14 to start talking about alcohol and the importance of safe drinking. You wouldn't wait until your son or daughter was ready to have sex to tell them the facts of life.
• Research links alcohol use and unprotected early sex, so warn your child that drinking can influence the ability to make decisions, and make it possible to do something they will regret the following day.
• Make sure they know that drinks can be spiked with drugs and that they should beware of getting into vulnerable situations. Explain that they and their friends will have to look out for one another.
• Know the official guidance on adult alcohol consumption (two to three units of alcohol a day for women, three to four units for men) and tailor your own drinking accordingly so you can pass on realistic messages about what is and isn't safe when it comes to alcohol.
• Remember that it is pointless to tell your children not to drink to excess if you are getting drunk in front of them. Young people learn more from what their parents do than from what they say — and will see it as hypocrisy if you don't practise what you preach.
• Most importantly, get across to your children that no matter what they do you will always be there for them — so if they feel vulnerable in any situation, regardless of how they got into it, they can call you.
# Joanna Moorhead
# The Guardian
# December 6, 2008