/Christmas cheer: sobering news for parents

Christmas cheer: sobering news for parents

It’s an inconvenient truth that children take much more notice of what we do rather than what we say, which can make all-age entertaining at home over Christmas a tricky affair.

As people gather to drink, eat and be merry, the chances are there will be generous amounts of alcohol flowing. The increasing volume of people enjoying themselves as glasses are emptied and refilled isn’t lost on little ears and eyes.

Auntie Sue is great fun altogether after she has had a few glasses of wine and Grandad is sure to start handing out euro notes when he has got through half a bottle of whiskey. The advertising of alcohol is rightly banned during children’s television viewing time, but they may still be bombarded with subliminal messages in their own living room.

Hardly surprising then, that by the time they’re teenagers, they can’t wait to get in on the action and try it for themselves. The “demon drink” approach is not going to have much credibility then, although nobody would wish close encounters with drink-fuelled violence, accidents and illness on youngsters just because they might be a deterrent.

It is a good time for parents to reflect on the message their own behaviour gives to children

Of course, Christmas isn’t the only time children see drinking as an integral part of celebrating – it’s a year-round habit for many. But in the run-up to the main festivities, it is a good time for parents to reflect on the message their own behaviour gives to children and how they are going to manage access to alcohol for one and all over the next few weeks.

A finding that jumps out from new research published by Drinkaware in November is that while 72 per cent of drinking occasions are now in the home, that rises to 94 per cent for the 35-54 age group. Those are the peak parenting years, when money is likely to be tightest and needing a babysitter only adds to the cost of a night out.

It is also a time when the chances are impressionable children and teenagers are watching these adults’ every move – for better or for worse.

“Role modelling can be a very positive thing if used properly,” says consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Gerry McCarney of the HSE’s Addiction Services. His broad advice to parents is: “Don’t drink too much, don’t drink too often and try to manage your behaviour.” If parents do that, generally they can’t go too wrong, he says.

However, it’s important to balance what they portray as the good aspects of alcohol use with facts on the bad things, so young people understand that. “They may see people laughing and having a good time with drink – and that’s in the context of being with friends and in a supportive environment,” he points out. However, “there is the other aspect of aggression and trauma from falling etc”.

Adults are entitled to drink at all-age family gatherings and if they do it in moderation, it is not going to be harmful. But it is about giving an example.

“Drinking is not a bad thing necessarily, it’s about how you drink and what you drink. If you do it sensibly, that’s a good message for young people to see and that is more likely to lead to a healthy relationship with alcohol for your children,” says McCarney.

‘Getting a bit tipsy’

“One of the core things for us is if people are prone to getting a bit tipsy, try to delay that until the younger children have gone off to bed, so they don’t see that. If they are prone to becoming aggressive, best not to do that in front of the kids.”

He would encourage parents to make decisions that will ensure when they wake up the next morning they are happy they gave an appropriate example to their children.

“Leading by example is the best thing a parent can do. If you don’t drink then you are leading by example by deciding not to; if you do drink, you are leading by example by drinking responsibly and discussing the risks as well as the more positive aspects of alcohol use.”

Once you are mindful of your own behaviour, there is the matter of your teenagers. The message McCarney recommends for them is to delay drinking as long as possible – “you don’t need it, your brain is developing, it’s a crucial time in life and the longer you leave it, the less harm it can do”.

We should also avoid creating a situation where underage teens have to hide their drinking

However, we all know many young people start drinking before the age of legal consent, which is 18 in this country but 16 in other European countries such as Spain, France and Germany, while in the US it’s 21. If you’re being absolutist, those discrepancies can be hard to explain. While parents need to hold boundaries, we should also avoid creating a situation where underage teens have to hide their drinking all the time, he says.

“What you don’t want is people using alcohol surreptitiously outside the family home and something happens but there is nobody there to help them.”

But that doesn’t mean you should go to the other extreme and serve alcoholic drinks to your underage teens. And be clear that if you were to give some to their friends or cousins in your home, you are breaking the law – unless you have consent from their parents.

The belief that if your underage teenagers are allowed to drink at home in a responsible manner, they will be less likely to drink outside the home is a common parental myth. McCarney refers to an Australian study that found children of parents who took a more permissive approach and allowed them drink at home had a higher rate of binge drinking and a higher rate of alcohol addiction later on in their lives.

Many parents are very well-intentioned in trying to control their children’s drinking by allowing them access to some alcohol at home before the age of 18, says the new chief executive of Drinkaware, Sheena Horgan. They think it is preferable that their teenagers drink in a supervised environment and that this will remove the “mystique” around alcohol. However, “they are effectively facilitating underage drinking”, she points out.

CEO of Drinkaware Sheena Horgan.
CEO of Drinkaware Sheena Horgan.

“I guess intuitively it feels right but, in reality, it is not. The research shows that the earlier children start drinking, the more problematic their drinking may be as an adult. So, it counteracts the good work that parents are trying to do.”

First alcoholic drink

The average age of the first alcoholic drink in Ireland is 15 and according to research, 27 per cent of adults say they were given their first drink by a parent of close relative. The National Parental Attitudes Towards Underage Drinking study, published by the same organisation last year, found 50 per cent of Irish parents feel it is acceptable for their children to drink alcohol at home before they are 18 years old and 14 per cent believe it is okay before the age of 15. It also reported that 78 per cent of parents say their children see them drinking alcohol at family celebrations.

Horgan knows how critics believe the not-for-profit organisation’s research and campaigning against the misuse of alcohol is undermined by the fact that its funding comes from the retailers, distributors and manufacturers of alcohol.

With her background in ethical marketing, some might think Horgan’s taking of the job is a case of gamekeeper-turned-poacher. However, she stresses that the organisation has “clear governance structures, in line with the Charity Regulator’s Governance Code, that restrict funders’ influence”. 

“Industry funding social initiatives can be uncomfortable,” she says, “but we should bear in mind that the Sustainable Development Goals and the World Health Organisation talk about how collaboration across civil society, industry and politics is important to address social issues such as alcohol harm.”

As a mother of four daughters aged 12 to 20, she knows all about the parenting dilemmas around teenagers and drink. She believes, as with any issue, good communication is vital and also that parents are still huge influencers in their teen’s life.

Parents are still one of the biggest influences

“We always think with teenagers we’re not, that peers take over, but parents are still one of the biggest influences. We need to apply that influence in a positive way and arm ourselves with the right information to do that.”

Drinkaware has a parents’ section on its website (drinkaware.ie), as does the HSE’s askaboutalcohol.ie, where its recently launched  booklet, Alcohol and Drugs: A Parent’s Guide, can be downloaded. Acknowledging there is a spectrum of opinion about the consumption of alcohol, McCarney says the HSE’s booklet is intended as an aid to parents on how to approach the topic with children, rather than being prescriptive.

He would recommend that appropriate conversations start at the age of eight to 10. In the addiction services, they frequently see people who have dabbled with alcohol or cannabis from that age. Although that is not the norm for the wider population, it is still good to start talking young – when they are more open to what parents say and long before, hopefully, they have felt any pressure to try drink or drugs.

With teenagers, he adds, “it’s important to be factual and honest. Be careful not to be hypocritical. If we are out getting hammered and then saying ‘don’t drink’, it doesn’t work really.”

Managing the Christmas spirit

“Will you have a drink – what will you have?” If that’s your default greeting when visitors call to your home this Christmas, you might want to reconsider.

Plan ahead and think about the habits and the language we use around our children during the festivities, advises Sheena Horgan.

“Small changes like offering an alternative to alcohol, not topping up glasses, having jugs of water and, if people are driving, encouraging them to have water or coffee. Children are great observers and sponges and they latch on to all of these things and remember them. So, it’s about us demonstrating good habits.”

Indeed, now that zero-tolerance for drink-driving is to be applauded, it’s surely not unreasonable to enquire casually of arriving guests, “who’s driving?”, and automatically offer them a non-alcoholic drink. Make sure you have a variety of soft drinks that will appeal to all tastes and, if serving spirits, use measures rather than free-pouring.

As it’s a time for mixed-age celebrations, parents should agree and adopt a united front on the question of underage drinking. It might be also necessary to have a talk with older siblings and extended family members to try to ensure they are aware of your wishes.

Does your brother-in-law know you don’t want your 16-year-old daughter to be repeatedly offered wine? Have you reminded your adult son that it is illegal to go into the off-licence and buy a few cans for his little brother and his mates?

Even if parents can rely on each other to drink responsibly, at least in front of the children, what about problem relatives who always do it to excess at this time of year? If it’s not desirable or charitable to avoid having them in your home, try to prevent or minimise contact with your children.

“Let’s face it many people drink, particularly at holiday periods, be it Christmas, Easter, family events or when they go away in the summer,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Gerry McCarney. “It’s something that is always going to be there but young people need to understand it is for adults.”

The numbers

– 11 standard drinks over a week is the low-risk limit for women
– 17 standard drinks over a week is the equivalent for men
– 94 per cent of drinking occasions for the 35-54 age group are in the home
– 15 years is the average age for a first drink in Ireland
– 27 per cent of people are given their first drink by a parent or close relative
– 95 per cent of students identified parents as their main source of learning about alcohol
– Seven out of 10 parents believe their own drinking habits influence their children’s attitude towards alcohol