Listen: Collett Smart shares advice with Emma Mullings about teens and alcohol.
When it comes to the question of teenagers and alcohol, adolescent psychologist Collett Smart has very clear advice for parents: wait until they’re 18. In her view, it’s one of the great parenting “non-negotiables”.
For some mums and dads though, keeping 15, 16 and 17-year-old kids away from the temptation of drinking before the legal age of 18, is much easier said than done. Teens eager to fit in socially can put immense pressure on parents to let them drink at home or take alcohol to parties.
So how can a parent navigate these pressures?
In a chat with Hope 103.2’s Emma Mullings, Collett shared tips on how parents can help guide their teenagers through the maze.
Why Wait Until They’re 18? The Facts
For those parents who are unsure whether the legal drinking age of 18 is all that important, it helps to be reminded of the statistics around teens and alcohol.
“I think we need to remember that the growing brain is much more damaged by alcohol than in adults,” Collett said. “We’re seeing this more now than we ever knew. Teens actually process alcohol differently.
“An adult may get sleepy after too many drinks, but teens are actually up and firing. And they begin to do all manner of risky things when they are fuelled by alcohol. There’s so many studies that show the link to teen deaths by drowning, increase in suicide risk, risk of sexual assault.
“And teens who use alcohol are more likely to be sexually active at early ages. They have sex more often, they have unprotected sex more than teens that don’t drink. Teen parties are very dangerous places if you are drunk—and girls are at risk more than boys.”
Research shows that teenagers who begin drinking before the age of 18:
- Are more likely to have problems with their school work
- Tend to binge drink and often don’t know when to stop
- Get involved in risky, dangerous behaviour
- Are more likely to become problem drinkers as adults
Teenagers Need Very Clear Boundaries
- Anxiety In Teenagers: 4 Ways Parents Can Help
- Teens And Social Media: 10 Tips For Parents
- My Teen Has Started Dating – What Do I Do?
Parents who are very clear on what they expect from their teenage children on the issue of drinking, are more likely to get their message through than parents who are vague and non-committal.
“Teens need to know where their parents stand on issues like this,” Collett said. “We need to be clear and unambiguous in our discussions around teen drinking and binge drinking. Our teens can’t guess that we have an issue with it if we never say it.”
It’s important not to only lay down rules, but to explain the reasons why—and don’t expect a peaceful, happy agreement.
“When we talk to them about some of the reasons, we must also expect disagreement from them,” Collett said. “They’ll say the usual things like “but everybody else is”, and “all parents let their kids drink”. But stick to your arguments.”
Dealing With Anxiety At Parties
The good news about teenagers and alcohol is that today’s teens are more likely not to drink. The numbers of teens who drink before age 18 is not increasing. What is increasing, though, is binge drinking.
Collett Smart says the main reason for drinking as a teenager is to fit in and to deal with their anxiety in social settings and at parties.
For this reason, she believes parents need to equip their kids with ideas on how to survive and enjoy parties without giving in to peer pressure. “It’s easy for us to say “you should just say no”, but it’s very difficult for them,” she said.
Help Your Teen Deal With Peer Pressure
As a mum of teenagers herself, Collett’s got plenty of tips on helping teens prepare for the offers of alcohol.
Tip 1 – Show Them That Sober Is Actually Cool
It can be helpful to teach your teenagers that losing control is more likely to make them a laughing stock than increase their popularity. To put it in Collett’s words, “Point out to your teens that usually the coolest person at the party is unlikely to be the person who’s sprawled out unconscious and covered in their own vomit.”
Tip 2 – Teach Them Social Skills
In the age of the iphone and social media, many teenagers have failed to learn the art of face-to-face socialising. It’s a skill that needs to be taught, says Collett.
“Give them scenarios, help them to think about what to say to guys and girls,” she advises. “Those are the things that make them anxious and they think that alcohol will help.”
Tip 3 – Suggest Excuses To Help Them Avoid Peer Pressure
As a parent, Collett equips her own kids with tricks and excuses that they can use to avoid embarrassment, and to help them stick to their boundaries. She advises other parents to do the same.
For example, walking around with a drink in their hand for the night can help them to avoid offers for more alcohol.
“I even told my children that I was at a party when I was young where I stood and merrily poured my drink into the nearest potplant every opportunity that I could,” she said, “because I didn’t feel like I could say “I can’t drink”.”
Tip 4 – Have A “Come And Get Me” Code
It can be helpful for teenagers to have a “code” they can use with their parents, if they feel like a party is getting out of hand.
“Have a code word that they can use in a text or call, if they feel like things are getting out of hand,” she said. “Something to say in code that means “come and get me now, I need to be picked up”.
“It’s something we’ve been talking to my kids about for a long time. It gives them a way to save face, so that if they feel like they need to leave they can do so.”
Teenage Parties: The Role Of Parents
Parties are an area where parents often feel disempowered, and assume that they have to back off and let teenagers have freedom. Collett says this is not the case.
If your own child is hosting a party in your home, it’s important to stay visible and present.
“In a party of 30 or 50 kids in your home, it’s not acceptable for your kid to say to you “stay out of sight”,” she said. “Besides the fact that it’s your home, it’s a huge duty of care issue. There are other parents expecting a responsible adult to be in charge and supervising.
“Sitting up in your room is not supervising. You put too many young people at risk of peer pressure and sexual pressure, and how do you even know what’s happening.”
She says “stalking” is not helpful, but finding ways to stay amongst the teens is advisable. “Do the barbecue, be in and out clearing cups and plates, fill up chip bowls, do the dishes in the kitchen,” she suggests. “It’s your home.”
Dropping Them Off At A Party
If you are dropping off your teenager at a friend’s house, don’t be afraid to go and meet the hosts, says Collett.
“As a parent I’m amazed how many times I arrive at the party and there’s only one or two of us actually walking in to say hi,” she told Emma Mullings. “We need to meet the hosts.”
Not all parents share the same values. According to a recent study by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), nearly a third of people think it’s OK to supply alcohol to other peoples’ teenagers in a “safe”, supervised environment. This may surprise parents who believe all teens should be teetotallers until age 18.
Forming a relationship with other parents goes a long way towards making sure your teenage children are safe.
The law also helps in this aspect: while it’s legal to give alcohol to your child NSW, it’s not legal to give a drink to someone else’s.
About Collett Smart
Collett Smart is a consultant psychologist, qualified teacher, lecturer, author, wife and mother of three children. She writes on many issues affecting teenagers, at Familysmart.com.au.