But as it is unlikely children will make it to the legal drinking age before they start to form their own opinions on alcohol, experts in the field believe it is crucial parents have opened up this topic of conversation at an early age.
The focus for this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week [13-19 November] is on families, specifically addressing the stigma that can keep teens from hiding the truth about their drinking habits, by having open and honest conversations about drinking.
Vivienne Evans, chief executive of the families, drugs and alcohol charity Adfam told HuffPost UK: “Alcohol is part of our culture in this country and is something children and young people are exposed to through advertising, their peers and their parents.”
Evans continued: “Parents sometimes don’t realise how much their children look up to them and how much they shape later behaviour as adults.
“We think it’s therefore important that all parents talk to their children openly and honestly to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to make safe decisions.”
The Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) 2017 report states that English Chief Medical Officers recommend a child does not drink before the age 15, and between the ages of 15 and 18 drinking should be supervised by an adult.
However, the the latest figures from NHS show 44% of 11- to 15-year-olds have tried alcohol. So it’s evident this is a conversation that needs to be had at an early age.
1. Get the timing right.
Drinkaware’s advice is that the earlier you bring up the topic with your children, the better. But remember: timing is everything.
“Starting a discussion just as your child going out the door to meet friends, before bed, or in the middle of an argument about other things can lead to conflict,” said Dr Sarah Jarvis, medical advisor to Drinkaware.
2. Make it an ongoing conversation.
Just like the “sex” talk, the “alcohol” talk shouldn’t be a one-off conversation with your children, but rather one that is frequently addressed.
“You’re more likely to have a greater impact on your child’s decisions about drinking if you have a number of chats as part of an ongoing conversation,” said Dr Jarvis.
This includes bringing up the topic of alcohol in relation to topical events, as Dr Jarvis added: “If your children haven’t brought up the subject you could find a ‘hook’ - a recent film or TV storyline, a celebrity scandal involving drink, even stories about family or friends - simply ask: ‘What do you think?’ and follow on from what they say.”
3. Be honest about your own alcohol consumption.
Dr Jarvis said it is likely your child may ask about your own alcohol consumption. Rather than brush it off, help them understand your drinking habits, as well as addressing the risks. Do so in an educational manner.
“Children aren’t stupid,” Dr Jarvis told HuffPost UK. “If you claim you never drink or never get drunk and you do, they’ll know. As a parent, you have more influence than you might think.
“Your child is likely to come to you first for information and advice about alcohol, and you can help shape their attitudes and behaviour towards alcohol by reinforcing responsible drinking.”
This conversation could include your own alcohol consumption when you were younger: “It’s far better to confess, for example, that: ‘Yes, I drank at your age – and I wish I hadn’t. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have.’ And if their questions get uncomfortable, say so.”
“Children aren’t stupid. If you claim you never drink or never get drunk and you do, they’ll know."”
4. Compare your alcohol consumption to theirs.
Being honest about how much you drink is one thing, but giving children the assumption that they are able to drink the same could cause problems.
Dr Jarvis said: “Young people are going through huge changes in their teens, and in many respects they feel they’re grown up.
“You need them to understand that saying they can’t drink in the same way you can is nothing to do with you treating them as if they’re not mature.”
If necessary, it may be helpful for you to explain the physical reasons that children and young people should avoid alcohol at their age.
“Alcohol can harm young people while they are still developing which is why the UK chief medical officers say an alcohol-free childhood as the best option,” Dr Jarvis explained.
“Young people’s brains are still developing and they may be more vulnerable to long-term effects on memory function, learning ability and educational achievement than adults.”
5. Be careful of the language you use.
It’s important parents act as good role models regarding alcohol, and this includes how they speak about it in front of their kids.
“What many parents may not realise is that children understand a great deal about the amount they drink and telling stories that glamorise alcohol, can easily undermine other good examples,” a spokesperson from Adfam said.
“Parents may be under the impression that stories of their own drunkenness or hangovers may put their children off drinking by highlighting problems, but these stories may have the opposite effect, encouraging and legitimising the idea of excessive drinking.”
6. Set rules and boundaries.
“It’s also important to set rules surrounding children’s drinking,” added Dr Jarvis.
“Young people like to push boundaries and test rules. That’s part of being a teenager. But the fact is that they feel safer if there are guidelines.
“Have clear rules and have sanctions for breaking them.”
A spokesperson from Adfam agreed, adding: “Parents should have open discussions around why these rules are in place.
“Parents who combine warm, two-way conversations and consistent, clear, enforced rules and high supervision, seem best placed to develop secure emotional bonds with their children in a way which could be protective against problematic alcohol use.”
Information and support for parents and children:
Alcohol Concern has an online guide on how to speak to young people about alcohol here.
Drink Aware has advice and guidance on dealing with and preventing underage drinking.
Family Lives provides help and support for anyone caring for a child. They health a wealth of information online, as well as a helpline.
Childline runs a helpline for young people who are able to get support on issues such as stopping smoking. They have guidance here.
Adfam has a map of support services for families affected by alcohol use.