Thursday, November 8, 2012

Parenting and underage drinking

Fact: One young Australian aged between 14 and 17 years old dies every weekend due to alcohol.

Underage drinking is an issue that has been in my “Column Ideas” folder for quite some time but I felt at a loss on how to discuss the subject. It can be a prickly topic for both parents and teenagers and one that I find hard to negotiate because as an adult, I like to and do, drink alcohol in social situations.

Drinking is part of our Australian culture and possibly more so in rural areas where the local pub or football club may be one of the few options for socialising. As a parent and community member, I want to encourage our children to delay drinking alcohol, to do their developing brains a favour and to build confidence in themselves without using alcohol.

My parents encouraged responsible drinking but as a teenager at home, I wasn’t above surreptitiously swigging a few mouthfuls of rosé straight from the cask in the cool-room or sampling the various liqueurs out of the cupboard in the dining room. In my teenage years I was desperate to join the adult world, get on with my own life and not have to answer to anyone. On illegal outings from boarding school when I was sixteen, I would buy alcohol in an ill thought out attempt to prove I was ready to leave my childhood behind.

My concern today is the level of drinking amongst some of our teenagers. It’s not having a laugh and a couple of beers with your mates; it’s drinking straight spirits like vodka until you vomit and/or pass out.

What is driving this behaviour? How can we help our children to develop self-confidence, communication skills and strength of character so they don’t resort to abusing alcohol, cigarettes or drugs?

The teenage years are a minefield; surging hormones contribute to extreme emotional highs and lows. One minute you’re high on life, and then the next a pimple or a flippant remark from a friend signals the end of the world. It sounds trivial but it’s not. It is a time when we really struggle to work out our place in the world and how to cross that precarious bridge from childhood to adulthood.

Up until the age of twenty-five, our brains are still developing. Research in the last ten years shows a strong, clear link between alcohol and its effect on young minds. For teenagers and in particular young teenagers, misusing alcohol will stunt both their intellectual and emotional growth and increase their likelihood of drug and alcohol dependence later on.

Recently one of my sons was seen drinking excessively and smoking at a local eighteenth birthday party, my son is fourteen. I was under the mistaken belief he was having a sleepover at a friend’s house so it was quite a shock to be taken aside by one of our local police officers five days later and told the truth.

I felt a range of emotions including parental guilt for not knowing what my son was up to.  I felt angry that my son was allowed to attend the party and that other adults had seen or knew he was there and hadn’t told me.

Eighteenth birthday parties are a time of celebration for young people entering the adult world and it is also the time they are legally able to buy and consume alcohol. An eighteenth birthday party logically would have a few seventeen year olds in attendance (immediate friends who have yet to turn eighteen) but is it the place for younger teenagers or children if responsible adult supervision is minimal or nonexistent?

Our small community means age groups tend to mix and get along well. This is usually great for a community except where parties with alcohol are concerned.

Yes, I was extremely disappointed in my son’s behaviour, my son who I’m immensely proud of 99% of the time. I find him so grown up; mature and capable in so many ways but here he was smoking and drinking to the point of being very drunk at fourteen years of age. The fact that he had lied to me and broken my trust in him (giving me a good insight to how my parents must have felt all those years ago) hurt me more than anything. Rebuilding that trust will take time and a concerted effort from both of us.

Shortly after the police spoke to me, a number of friends confided that they also knew about the incident but had been unsure how to tell me or they wanted to wait a bit until they thought it would be a better time to tell me. They also mentioned other underage teenagers who they have observed either drinking or being drunk locally on a number of occasions.

While I can understand my friends and their reluctance to broach an uncomfortable topic and I appreciate their intention was not to hurt me or add to my stress levels; not broaching it doesn’t help me as a parent and it sure as hell doesn’t help our kids.

Being part of a small community means people observe and talk about what happens, i.e. you can’t do anything without people finding out. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sometimes it’s misconstrued but in the case of underage drinking, it is a good thing. It enables us to look out for all children, not just our own.

I like and believe the African proverb - “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” 

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