Alcohol is a central part of many cultures. This is especially true in Ireland. It’s often a feature of our social-lives, celebrations and festive events.

We are unusual by international standards in the quantity of alcohol we consume in a drinking episode.

ReachOut Parents Youth Mental HealthIn some cases, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol can develop. Dealing with alcohol and young people’s relationship and understanding of it can be tricky.

Address it

Don’t ignore the topic. It’s an important issue for young people.

Their brains are still developing and are more susceptible to alcohol-related harm.

Worryingly, research tells us regular drinking during the mid-teenage years results in brain changes and a deterioration in cognitive functioning.

Young people also have less tolerance to the effects of alcohol. Even small amounts can lead to intoxication and associated risky behaviour.

What’s a standard drink?

Different types of alcoholic drinks contain different amounts of pure alcohol.
A standard drink/unit has 10g of pure alcohol. This is typically:

  • 285ml glass of beer (half pint)
  • 100ml glass of wine (small glass, not what’s usually served in pubs)
  • 30 ml measure of spirits (one shot).

Recommended alcohol limits

Men (over 18 years-old), up to 17 standard drinks per week.
Women (over 18 years-old), up to 11 standard drinks per week.

It’s recommended there should always be at least two days a week when you don’t drink.

The World Health Organization advises against drinking more than five standard drinks in any one drinking episode. To do so, increases the risk of accidents and injuries.

How much are young people drinking?

The recent My World Survey was conducted with 6,085 people aged 12-19 years-old and 8,221 young adults aged 17-25 years-old in Ireland.

It revealed important findings in terms of alcohol consumption and its association with emotional problems.

Drinking increases with age in secondary school. Half of sixth-years were classified as problematic drinkers when benchmarked against international standards for adults. One in five of the Junior Cert students were drinking in manner that would be deemed problematic for an adult.

With the link between emotional problems and alcohol, adolescents who drank more were more likely to also fall into the moderate to very severe range for depressive symptoms.

For problem drinking behaviour, 67% of young men and 58% (18-25 year-olds) fell into the range of problematic drinking (ranging from hazardous to possible addiction).

Depression and alcohol consumption was found to be strongly associated in young adults. As young adults in the low risk drinking range were the most likely to fall within the normal range for depression. As drinking escalated so to did the likelihood of more severe depressive symptoms.

Why do young people drink?

Young people may use alcohol for various reasons. Some do it for fun, or because they are curious. Others try it because their friends are already drinking and they don’t want to stand out.

Some are experimenting with the feeling of intoxication and sometimes young people use it to cope with difficult situations or feelings of worry and low mood.

How harmful is it?

Young people experience disproportionate harm related to their drinking.

Short-term effects of alcohol use:

• nausea and vomiting
• shakiness
• memory loss – “black outs”
• feeling dis-inhibited
• reduced ability to perceive danger or hazards
• injury
• unpredictable shifts in emotion (e.g. sudden dip in mood or escalation of anger)
• booze blues (feeling down the following day).

Long-term effects of alcohol use:

• change in brain functioning in adolescents who drink regularly
• dependency on alcohol
• significant damage to liver
• risk of emotional problems.

Other effects can include:

• social isolation
• difficulty with employment or studies
• vulnerability while drunk – increased risk of physical or sexual assault.

Drinking more than five standard drinks can lead to doing things you wouldn’t normally do, such as having unprotected or unwanted sex. It can lead to fighting with or losing friends or loved ones as a result of how you act.

How to recognise signs someone is secretly drinking?

It’s very difficult to know when exactly using drugs and alcohol is more than just ‘usual’. Occasional use can be difficult to detect. Also if your son or daughter is over 18 years-old it can be difficult to monitor but you still have a right to query their use if you’re concerned.

If a young person is drinking on a regular basis, their behaviour often changes.

Look for signs such as:

  • reduction of interest in hobbies, activities, sports, school/college or friends
  • abrupt mood swings for no apparent reason
  • large shift to new friends
  • behaviour that is out of character
  • explained loss of money
  • restlessness or tiredness
  • insists on “getting ready” in other people’s home when going on a night out
  • seems unusually giddy when picked up by you at the end of a night out
  • waits until you’re in bed before coming home from the party
  • insists he/she will stay in a friend’s house to sleep over after night out.

What can parents do?

As a parent you play an important role in educating your son/daughter about alcohol and helping them to manage their relationship with alcohol.

It’s never too early to start talking to young people about the effects of alcohol and the reasons why it is best left until adulthood. This helps keep lines of communication open. Your advice and support is critical, even though it may not always be welcomed.

Discuss your expectations around alcohol consumption. Spell them out and discuss why they’re important.

Be authoritative in your parenting. This means working on your “responsiveness'”(i.e. demonstrating warmth, affection, support and good communication) while also having high “demands” regarding their behaviour. Read more about these parenting styles.

Parents should decide together what should happen when rules are broken. Research shows young people expect and want their parents to set boundaries, even if they do cross them occasionally.

Follow through and apply the consequences. Both parents need to agree on and stick to the same rules.

Avoid scare tactics, many young people don’t believe certain consequences will ever happen to them. They are more likely to be persuaded by listening to a realistic presentation of the facts.

Delay their drinking for as long as possible. Although some people have suggested that introducing teenagers to alcohol may help them to develop a healthier relationship with it, experts agree that it is counterproductive and actually increases the risk of subsequent harmful drinking patterns.

Educate them about the size of a standard drink. Standard drinks sizes can often be deceptive to both adults and young people.

Role-model behaviour

As parents, you’re probably the most important role-model in your children’s lives. Model responsible behaviour and attitudes towards drinking that are consistent with the expectations you have for them.

• stick within low risk drinking guidelines yourself
• avoid getting drunk or even ‘tipsy’ around your son/daughter from when they are young
• make a point of sometimes refusing alcohol when they’re present
• model healthy ways of coping with stress without alcohol like exercise, listening to music or talking.

• drink and drive
• let other adults drive after attending a function at your place
• portray alcohol as a good way to deal with stress, e.g. “I had such a bad day, I need a drink”
• convey the idea alcohol is fun or glamorous through stories about your own or others’ drinking.

Communicate with your son or daughter about alcohol

Keep lines of communication clear – from an early age, encourage an open atmosphere so they feel they can talk about things.

Eat dinner together as a family – to allow everyone to talk about day-to-day issues.

Get to know their friends – so you know where they’re going and who they’re with.

Build support networks – with their friends’ parents to help with difficult situations and keep track of where they are. When teenagers want to drink, they will tend to gravitate towards the home of their friend whose parents are not there or who “turn a blind eye” to their drinking.

Make them aware – if they do get into trouble you’re there to help.

Peer pressure

Young people can find themselves in situations where it can be difficult to say no because their friends are “all doing it”.

You can help your children’s develop confidence in dealing with peer pressure. A good idea might be to discuss some typical scenarios.

Help them say no when there’s pressure to drink. Provide suggestions as to things they could say, for example “Not for me, thanks.” or “I’ll pass this time”.

Assure them, saying no and standing up for what they believe will often seem hard at first, but feels good once they do it. Talk to your child about standing up for others facing peer pressure.

Encourage them to hang out with friends they feel comfortable with, who don’t put pressure on them to drink.

Stress the importance of never getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking. Agree on a plan if this situation arises. This may include paying for a taxi when they get home, picking them up, or allowing them to stay over at a friend’s place if that’s not possible.

Talk about the dangers of drink spiking and how they can protect themselves.

Discuss what to do if a friend is intoxicated.

Remember peer pressure can be positive! Your son or daughter might be the one who wants to go drinking. Their “sensible” friends may pressure him or her not to.

What if they come home drunk?

Even if you want to talk about it immediately, especially if you’re upset or angry, wait until they’re sober so you can have a rational discussion.

When you do discuss it, reinforce the rules that have been broken, outline your disappointment and follow through on the consequences. The issued consequences for failure to adhere to expectations do not need to be dramatic or severe, they just need to happen.

Stay calm

Try to stay calm. Make sure you know the facts surrounding the situation. Don’t be angry or blame them – they need your help and trust in order to deal with the situation.

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