Are middle-class parents contributing to their children's alcohol addiction?

Last week a high-profile British therapist nailed middle-class parents to the wall for contributing to alcohol addiction in their adolescent children.

A combination of stress, stigma and naivety among these parents, Mandy Saligari argued, meant more and more teenagers were showing up to her London clinic with substance abuse problems, some as young as 13.

“They appear to have everything,” the Charter clinic founder told The Independent, “educated parents, nice homes, comfortable backgrounds and good schools… They’ve got prospects in the world and yet there is this pattern of abusing drugs and alcohol.”

Saligari’s comments came on the back of a US study that indicated that high-school pupils from affluent communities are more likely to end up with drug and alcohol addictions later in life.

The researchers from Arizona State University found that, by age 26, upper-middle-class young adults’ lifetime chances of being diagnosed with an addiction to drugs or alcohol were, on average, two to three times higher than the national rates for people of the same age.

According to Saligari the root is stress.

middle class parents alcohol addiction

Stressed parents who work long hours providing opportunities for their children to supersede them come home and drink. Then stressed teenagers, eager to meet that expectation, are scared to admit when they have a problem.

“So you have the parents working really hard, trying to provide all the opportunities for the child so that the child can succeed, but the child is experiencing so much pressure that they don’t want to let the parent down, to tell them that they’re struggling," she said.

"It’s such a negative circuit.”

But Australian psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg argues class isn't the clearest path to dependence on alcohol. Age is.


Speaking to Mamamia, the adolescent mental health specialist pointed to findings by Ralph Hingson that 45 per cent of adults who began drinking alcohol before the age of 14 developed dependence compared with 10 per cent of those who waited until they were 21 years or older.

"The bottom line is it has nothing to do with class - it might in the UK, but evidence in Australia and the United States shows the damage is related to the age of onset," said Carr-Gregg.

What he does agree with Saligari on, is the role of parents in their children's attitude to alcohol.

"What a lot of parents don't realise is what incredible role modelling their behaviour has, particularly on early adolescents. So if you drink moderately and responsibly, if you drink only with a meal, if you you stick to the two-to-three standard drinks that the National Health and Medical Research Council are recommending and have a couple of days off in between, if you do all that you will send a message about the responsible use of alcohol," he said.

As will not supplying teens with alcohol.

Saligari referred to anecdotal evidence of parents issuing their children with alcohol in an attempt to control the quality and quantity of what they consume. Like her, Carr-Gregg believes this is both naive and harmful.

"The teenage brain has 100 billion brain cells, 1000 trillion connections and it's not all wired up until the boys are 25 and the girls are 23. Alcohol has been shown in virtually every single study that you could wish to name as not good for that developing brain," he said.

Especially the hippocampus, he notes; the part of the brain associated with memory and learning.

How do you talk to your teens about boozing responsibly? Jackie Lunn shares how she navigates the tricky topic.

"So while you can be sending your darling child to a $25,000-a-year school, if you are allowing them to drink at the same time you might as well be standing under the shower ripping up $50 notes. I can't make it clearer than that."

That developing brain is also not properly equipped for risk assessment, Carr-Gregg argues, which is why it's up to parents, to adults, to make that assessment for them - something he believes too few currently do.

"This is the Australian parenting disease, because we're hesitant to set rules and boundaries because we don't want to upset them, we feel guilty, we want to be their best friend," he said.

"We actually do have to risk being a bit unpopular and set limits and boundaries over things that matter, and because of the damage that alcohol can do to the brain, alcohol is one of those things."

For information about how to start a conversation with your kids about alcohol and drugs, Michael Carr-Gregg recommends visiting The Other Talk website.

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