There are plenty of reasons why we should talk to our children about drinking and sooner you start the conversation the better (although, it's never too late).
Young children listen to their parents
Young children look up to their parents and will listen to what you say. With teenagers, it’s natural and normal for them to pull away and make their friends their focus. What their peers think or believe becomes more important to them.
However, what you think feel about them remains central to their lives. They still look for your approval as well as your love, however disdainful they may seem of your opinion.
Children value your advice
Your children may say you don’t understand or know anything... but young people still pay attention to what you say and how you feel1. But you need to earn their respect: the more you admit when you don’t know something, the more you listen to them, the more you offer praise when they get it right rather than criticism when they get it wrong, the more likely it will be that they come to you for advice and take it.
If you don’t talk to your child about alcohol, someone else will
There are plenty of people out there who will answer their questions about alcohol or listen to them if you don’t. The problem is that they may be friends who have as confused and inaccurate an idea as they do. Or there might be websites or people on the internet who could lead them astray.
Saying nothing or evading the issue does not mean the questions go away, just that they go elsewhere.
Preventing underage drinking is vital for their health and success in life
Underage drinking really can have an impact on the rest of your child’s lives. It’s never too early to talk about alcohol but it’s also never too late. Even if they have tried alcohol, you can still help them to stop drinking. They need to hear you say you love them and that this is not about you being a killjoy. It’s about your care for them, your desire for them to reach their full potential and be happy.
The more you talk about drinking, the happier they will be
It’s not about ‘having the talk’ because it’s not a one-off lecture. It’s about building the habit of listening to each other and sharing thoughts and opinions, about negotiating and compromising.
When children feel they can come to you about anything and you’ll listen with respect and answer to the best of your ability they’ll stay close and come to you more often.
They’ll already have questions about alcohol
If your children haven't asked you about alcohol it might be because they haven’t got questions. But it’s just as likely that they’ve already assumed this is not something you feel comfortable talking about.
Don’t forget they learn about alcohol from so many places – if not you then the media, friends, family. They have the questions – they need you to make it clear you will answer them.
Surely my child is too young to drink?
Clearly you need to tailor what you say to their age. The key is to answer questions and be guided by what they already know, not to blast in with a prepared speech.
If they have the questions they deserve an answer.
But won’t it encourage them to drink alcohol underage?
No, it won’t. Talking through an issue properly does not promote irresponsible behaviour. Look at that other subject where people sometimes say you should keep children in innocence. Research shows that children who are given good sex education leave their first steps into sexual experience later than those left in ignorance, and they make safer choices2.
Talking it through does not implant ideas in their head – talk to them and you’ll find out what they already know, which they would have picked up from the world around them.
Won’t they think I’m a hypocrite?
The best example to set your kids is either not to drink or to drink within the recommended alcohol unit guidelines. But telling them they shouldn’t drink when you do doesn’t make you a hypocrite. There is a reason that the Chief Medical Officers recommend an alcohol-free childhood is best. Young people’s bodies, and particularly their brains, are still developing, which makes young people more vulnerable than adults to the risks of even small amounts of alcohol.
It can be a tough discussion to have – most teenagers think they’re all grown up. But they do understand that there are aspects of their life that are different to yours, like studying and taking exams. One of the associated risks of underage drinking alcohol can have a significant impact on memory and concentration.
Won’t my child learn about alcohol in school?
Your child’s school may indeed be covering the subject of alcohol, although it’s not compulsory so they may only be tackling some aspects. It’s an excellent idea to see you and the school as partners adding to what the other is saying and supporting each other. It’s worthwhile asking their school what they are teaching, and encouraging them to cover this important subject in depth.
Asking your child to tell you what they are learning is a good way of opening the discussion. Just leaving it to the school to deal with risks having some of those important questions unanswered.
Your child benefits from knowing they can come to you for more than facts.