It’s a fact of life—teens experiment with alcohol. But how do you know when things have gone too far?
One mum shares her 13-year-old’s struggle with alcohol, and how they came out the other side.
Things just start to snowball.
It can be hard to pinpoint when an alcohol problem begins. Sarah* is a single mother with four girls. Her girls are now 28, 23, 17 and 16, but when her second daughter, Julia*, was 13, things started to change.
“When Julia was young, she was trustworthy, had good friends, kind of the nerdy-girl. But when she just turned 13, she started sleeping over at friends’ places. We live near the city in Sydney, so she would start sneaking-out and hang out with her friends in the city. In the beginning, I was oblivious,” Sarah said.
Before Sarah realised what was happening, things started to snowball.
“She became aggressive and started hanging out with older kids. Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for two or three days. It really frightened me”.
There was a moment when it really hit her how bad this had become. “My youngest girls were only small at the time, like five or six, and I was walking the streets near Town Hall station, dragging them behind me, looking for Julia. It was awful. I found Julia drunk with friends, and dragged her home with me,” Sarah revealed.
“One time I got a phone call at 12.30am from the police. They wanted me to come down and pick Julia up. She been found drinking at Darling Harbour with friends, and got into a fight.”
“When I went to pick her up, she seemed scared. I thought that had rattled her enough that she wouldn’t do it again. But eventually she ended up in Juvie (Juvenile Detention), and DoCS (Department of Family and Community Services) got involved.”
When is alcohol a problem?
No amount of alcohol for a teen is good. But it becomes a much bigger problem when teens are binge drinking and when it changes their behaviour for the worst.
A lot of alcohol is bad for anyone, but it’s especially bad for teens. Research shows that our brains are still developing well into our 20’s, and too much alcohol can affect how the brain develops, and even damage it.
There is also a much bigger risk that teens will cause harm to themselves or others, get involved in risk taking behaviour and do things they may later regret.
As Julia found, it can also create problems with alcohol later in life and create conflict with peers. “Julia picked fights with other kids that she probably would have avoided if she had been sober,” Sarah explains.
“She has really turned a corner now, but sometimes she still struggles with alcohol all these years later, and can turn to it when things get hard.”
Alcohol in Australia
The legal age to drink alcohol in Australia is 18. But many teens start to experiment well before that. You may have heard that the recommended alcohol guidelines for adults are two standard drinks per day.
How much alcohol affects you depends on a lot of different things, like your age, gender and body size. But it’s actually recommended that teens don’t drink at all, so as a parent, trying to push back the age they start is the safest choice.
However, it’s important to remember that although most teens have tried alcohol at one point or another, the number engaged in risky drinking is low.
According to a study from the AIHW only one percent of 12-14 year olds are heavy drinkers, a number that has been in decline since 2004. For teens it can be hard to see this, as alcohol seems such a part of everyday life, so reinforcing that it’s actually not the norm can be helpful for parents trying to prevent binge drinking.
What to look out for in your teen
Some signs that your teen has a problem with alcohol could be:
• Hanging out with friends who drink and being secretive about plans.
• Being sick in the morning or sleeping later than usual.
• Emerging mental health problems, mood swings or memory issues.
• Avoiding curfew or not answering your questions and calls.
• Stopping coming to family things, withdrawing socially.
• Unexplained need for money, disappearing valuables.
• Trouble with the police.
• Absences from school or work, and failing subjects or getting fired.
• Ignoring activities that used to be important to them.
• Changes in eating habits and poor concentration.
Changes in behaviour or moods may indicate the use of alcohol or another substance however, these changes may also indicate an issue unrelated to alcohol.
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Things can get better
Julia has come a long way since those tough 18-months when she was 13. She went on to study community work, and is now training to be a nurse. Sarah says it takes a lot of hard work, and as a parent, it’s important to get help.
“I studied social work, so I thought I could handle anything my girls threw at me,” she said. “But when I was in the situation, I felt overwhelmed and stuck. The Youth Liaison Officer (with the police) was really helpful. So were the workers at DoCS. They put me in touch with a psychiatrist and a counsellor.
At the time, Julia hated me for it, but recently she said how much it helped her, and made her feel like I cared. She also spent some time with family up the coast to get away from things, and I think that really helped her.”
“I tried to keep the lines of communication open, and showed that although I knew what was going on, I respected and trusted her. I didn’t lock the doors, but I put bells on them so I knew when she was going out.”
“If I had my time again, I probably would be more assertive with the school. I would have met with them, and tried to come up with a plan. The school she was originally at was pretty laid-back in doing anything to help her. So, I found another school that was much more on board with helping Julia, and that made a big difference.”
Tips for helping your teen
Even if you haven’t noticed any of the signs above it’s important to be proactive with your teen. Remember, the key is minimising harm in any way you can.
If you’re just starting off on this journey you can try things like:
• Leading by example and modelling a good relationship with alcohol, in other words, not reaching for a bottle of wine after a hard day’s work.
• Starting the conversation around alcohol advertising and chatting about what normal is, ie. that most teens don’t actually drink a lot.
• Brainstorming ideas of what it would be like to socialise without alcohol.
• Giving them the facts – alcohol makes it harder to make good decisions; it can damage your brain, and lead to long-term health problems like liver damage and cancer.
• Deciding on some comebacks for when their friends push them to drink: “I’ve got to play netball in the morning.” “Mum notices everything, there’s no way I’ll get away with it!”
• Talking to the parents of your teen’s friends so that you can present a united front.
If your teen understands the risks and decides to drink anyway safety should be your first priority.
• Make sure they know they can call on you anytime no matter what. Try to stay non-judgemental in an emergency if they do tell you something you don’t like.
• Set clear expectations around their behaviour, things like curfew and telling you where they are.
• Encourage them to take precautions such as having a glass of water between each drink and sorting out transport that doesn’t involve them driving.
• Understand that it could be a coping mechanism for other emotions and chat to your kids about what is going on in their life.
• Talk to your teen about safe drinking limits—usually around one standard drink per hour – and show them what that looks like for wine, spirits and beer.
• Talk to the school about how they’re handling education around teen drinking.
Alcohol can be a difficult issue to chat to your teen about, and sometimes you might feel helpless.
But if you can work with your teen to understand why they drink and come-up with a solution that works for both of you, it can set them up really well for the future.
“Julia is a bit ashamed of what happened when she was younger,” Sarah admits. "But she came through it to be the person she is today, and that’s something to be proud of.”
Hear how other parents deal with drugs and alcohol in this video.
ReachOut Parents worked in collaboration with the Alcohol and Drug Foundation for this article.
Annie Wylie is the Content Manager at ReachOut Parents. She has five+ years of experience across the media and not-for-profit sectors, using her passion and expertise for achieving better outcomes for vulnerable communities to produce stories, resources and events that matter.
* Names have been changed for this article.