Sobering task for all parents

WOULDN'T you like to make a difference in your life and do something really worthwhile?

Well if you're a parent I've got some good news there is something really useful you can do.

Tell your children you will not buy alcohol for them until they are 18 years old and that you will not allow alcohol to be used in your home by underage youth.

By now you're in one of two camps either you agree with me and have already set firm rules forbidding underage alcohol use, or you might be in the other camp and thinking "what a silly idea how can that help?"

Hopefully by now we agree that youth alcohol use is a problem.

A recent study by the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre noted that alcohol-related hospital episodes and ambulance call-outs increased across Victoria over the past decade.

What changed? Two things are different.

Firstly there are now more places to buy alcohol and so the alcohol sellers are more aggressively marketing alcohol to youth.

Secondly, beginning in the late 1980s parents began offering alcohol to children at younger ages.

My research team and many others have found that the earlier a young person starts using alcohol the more likely they are to develop alcohol-related problems later in their life.

What do I mean by parents allowing alcohol use? You don't have to do much as a parent for young people to get the message that you are allowing them to use alcohol.

If you turn a blind eye when your children sip dad's beer then they will think that you are allowing them to use alcohol.

In homes that allow a few sips of alcohol at a young age the demands tend to continue and after a few years those children are drinking larger amounts of alcohol.

But, what should a parent do if their child wants a sip of dad's beer? My advice to parents is to behave like you would if your child wanted to try dad's Alzheimer's medication.

State clearly: "No, that is a poison for children as it harms the developing brain".

Why did parents in the 1980s start allowing underage children to use alcohol? Parents tell us that it was their response to alcohol being so available.

Their mistaken logic was that if they didn't allow children to use alcohol at home their children would use alcohol behind their backs.

Given the teenager's job description includes rebelling against their parents' rules, most teenagers will test boundaries to some degree.

Our research team found that in the families where parents set a rule that children were not to use alcohol, there was some rebellion but it tended to be limited to the children having a few drinks behind their parents' back.

However, in the families where the parents set a rule allowing moderate alcohol use their children tended to rebel with heavy alcohol use.

Some parents say they allow their children to use alcohol to avoid it being an issue that could get in the way of friendly communication.

My response is to remind parents of their job description. Unlike friends, parents have to set some boundaries even if that can result in a bit of tension at times.

When parents set reasonable rules, many adolescents do rebel and test the boundaries for a while, but my experience is that, after a few weeks, things settle down.

Adolescent brain development happens pretty rapidly especially when alcohol is not stopping it and before you know it adolescents start adopting many of the ideas that they initially rejected from their parents.

Where parents set healthy guidelines adolescents say they feel more secure and eventually develop a greater respect for their parents.

But what if your child is already using alcohol and you have gotten to the stage where you are buying it for them?

Well it is never too late to change. By not buying alcohol for their adolescents parents make clear they are not in favour of this behaviour.

Adolescents that wish to use alcohol in these situations have the option to purchase it using their own money.

Given adolescents tend to have limited money this typically has the effect of reducing the amount of alcohol that the adolescent can use.

If adolescent alcohol use has got to the point where it is a serious problem in your house don't be afraid to seek help from agencies like Turning Point.

Professor John Toumbourou is the chair in health psychology at Deakin University

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