Expert tips for parents who discover that their teenager drinks alcohol.

Dr Gerry McCarney is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. The HSE booklet, Alcohol and Drugs: A Parents’ Guide also contains information on what to do if you think your child is taking drugs, how to handle resistance, your guide to parties, building resilience and handling emergency situations. ALCOHOL IS SO normalised in our society that we sometimes forget that supplying alcohol to someone under 18 without their parents’ permission is against the law. Christmas or not, giving drink to children is not just against the law it’s damaging to their developing bodies and brains. 
Human brains keep developing into the early to mid-twenties. The really uncomfortable truth is something that we all know on some level that in order to keep our children safe, we need to start thinking about our own drinking because the example we set is one of the most powerful influences on our children’s future behaviour. Start with this simple Drinks Calculator and get a quick assessment of your own drinking. It only takes a minute. Drinking alcohol affects our behaviour, so we need to consider this if we are to use alcohol in front of our children, because what we do and say affects their decision making in relation to their own substance use. It won’t be news to parents of teenagers that they will always try and push the boundaries and rules that keep them safe it’s their job as they test the world around them. And it’s the parent’s role to set the boundaries and teach the reasons why the boundaries exist so that we can guide them safely to adulthood.What if they break the rules?: So say you’ve heeded all the medical advice and set a ‘no alcohol under 18’ rule and your child breaks the rules and comes home drunk. It’s a common problem but one that people really struggle with. So what do you do? Chalk it down to experience and hope they learn their lesson? It might be easier to pretend it’s not happening but actually, it’s the perfect opportunity to have a conversation and to figure out what’s going on with your teen so that you can help prevent it from happening again in the future. Here’s your step-by-step guide to handling the situation; Stay calm: This isn’t the time to get angry. Shouting at or giving a lecture to an intoxicated child is more likely to yield an unwanted reaction and is less effective than speaking when they are sober and rested. The key is to show your displeasure but to WAIT to have the discussion about the incident.

Make sure they’re safe: Make sure your child is safe this depends on how much alcohol they have consumed. Try and find out what they’ve had to drink. This may involve asking questions of friends who are soberer. Mostly, you will be able to let them sleep it off but it’s important to consider staying with them while they sleep in case they vomit. If they have had a lot to drink, they may need medical attention. Be aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning which include irregular breathing, pale and clammy and bluish tinged skin, low body temperature, vomiting and seizures.Listen: When they’ve sobered up, use active listening to find out as much as possible about what happened. Start by asking open questions this means questions that don’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, questions like the following: 

Tell me what happened? 

Who was with you? 

How did you feel when that happened? 

Why do you think this makes us concerned? 

After this, it is possible to get more specific information by the use of closed questions such as: 

Did you feel anxious or under pressure? 

Had you planned to get drunk? 

Where did you get the alcohol? 

Were you aware of how much they were drinking? 

Did you drink before you left the house? 

Did it ruin your night? 

Did your friends all look out for each other- was anyone left behind? 

Think about what your child needs to know so that it doesn’t happen again. Factual information about risks and how to reduce harm is helpful.

Help them learn: Without overwhelming them, give them some information, based on what is shared with you. For example: 

The dangers of mixing drinks and drinking very quickly 

How too much alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning 

The risk of accidents and injuries 

How being out of control can leave them vulnerable or behaving in a way they might regret. 

Give a consequence: This doesn’t mean blaming the child. It means giving a clear message that you don’t approve of the behaviour and the reasons why. Consequences might be taking away a mobile phone for a period of time, reducing pocket money, expecting them home earlier in future, or grounding. Setting boundaries and using rewards and consequences are considered effective parenting practice and it works. The purpose is, of course, to keep our children safe, not to damage our relationships with them by being overly authoritative.

How to stop it happening again: Discuss with them which rules need to be put in place to stop it happening again. This doesn’t mean locking them in a room, but working collaboratively and taking steps so that you can let them go out without worrying about this happening again. Make sure that they know you’re doing this because you care about them and want to keep them safe.

people's response;

A: I’m 23 now and started drinking at 16 or so. When I first started and my mum found out she decided to buy me maybe 3 or 4 cans of cider when I was planning on going out (maybe once a month or less). Those cans would be all I’d drink for the night and I’d never get very drunk, it was my friends with strict parents that would be the messiest by far. They were sneaking out of their houses, buying bottles of vodka from dodgy shops and drinking way more than they could handle. At that age, if something is completely banned then it’s more exciting, while if it’s not a huge novelty then we never really bothered pushing it too far.

B: Tip number one: turn up to their preferred outdoor recreational drinking spot with a peaked cap turned backwards, one trouser leg rolled up and a shoulder of vodka and proceed to drink with their friends and become “the cool parent”.Tip Two: watch as your child dies of embarrassment and never drinks again.

C: Tip 3: Kick their ass.

D:At this stage of our youths, social development parents would be lucky, perhaps very lucky if their children are experimenting with alcohol and not drugs. Sadly this is scourge is causing dreadful harm to most of our younger generation. I know alcohol is a problem as well and it needs to be intelligently handled by parents but with drugs, mental health among other issues will show their worth in the years to come.

E: I brought my son out for his first public house drink when he was 18, he often had a bottle of beer or glass of wine with us from an earlier age. He’s now in his 40′s and never really took to alcohol. He turned out to be a very responsible drinker that is just as happy to have a glass of blackcurrant (especially when driving) over a beer. If he goes out he just has a few and enjoys himself as much as everyone else. I am much the same and I came from a family that abused alcohol. I wanted to lift the veil of secrecy and dependence on alcohol and increase his social and communitive skills. Looked like it worked and I am so proud of him.

F: As a mum of 6 now aged 18 to 35, all mine drank as teenagers. So long as they didn’t go to town on it, we largely turned a blind eye. They’ve all turned out great people, all drink very little now, one girl no longer drinks. I’m a non-drinker myself but my husband takes a drink at weekends, probably more than all the kids put together, lol!. Some of the children’s friends, whose parents were really strict, went totally off the rails at 18 and got into drugs etc. What’s forbidden is always more desirable. If you take that away, they find their own level.

G: We introduced each of our 5 children to alcohol at 16 and have never looked back. They are all responsible adults now because we openly discussed the pros and cons of alcohol and asked them to have a drink with us rather than in some field.