What to do when your teenager asks “Mum, can I drink alcohol tonight?”

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Knowing what age to broach the topic of alcohol, what age to indulge the buying of alcohol and the best way to develop healthy drinking habits are just some of the messy, murky waters parents of teenagers wade through.

After all, we live in a heavily concentrated binge drinking culture. As today’s kids find themselves enveloped by it, parents are scrambling to keep up and curb excessive drinking in their young teenagers.

So, what’s one to do?

According to the Director and Principal Psychologist of Reflection Psychology, Gary Rubin, there are several ways parents can encourage their kids to have a positive relationship with alcohol, without breathing down the necks.

Start early

According to Rubin, pre-education needs to start early, and kids should be familiar with alcohol before having their first exposure socially.

“If there’s non-avoidance, and the teen is going to be exposed to alcohol, the best option for everyone is for the kid to be exposed to it in the safest environment possible. Sit with them so they can learn to understand how their body responds to it,” he says.

Although Rubin acknowledges that the way teenagers are exposed to alcohol is vastly different to “quietly sitting around at a family BBQ”, he says, psychologically, drinking is less of an act or rebellion if it’s first introduced safely.

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Focus on binge drinking, not no drinking

Rubin believes it’s important that parents focus their conversations on binge drinking, not just drinking. The focus, he says, it too often on the “not drinking”, not on the act of binge drinking.

Citing the optimal stimulation theory, where we all have an optimal level of stimulation we must reach to be focused, Rubin says in today’s digital realm, kids are increasingly bored which “feeds an existing drinking culture”.

“If a kid’s first exposure to alcohol is having five or six drinks, that become’s the precedent. Often, research tells us kid are going to do it anyway, so being able to sit with them and not make alcohol the enemy is important. Misuse is the issue here, not the drinking.”

Yes, you can give them a drink at dinner

Many parents are looking for answers that are black and white. Do I give them a drink with dinner? Does that help their relationship with alcohol?

According to Rubin, yes, you can give them that drink with dinner to start a conversation. However, there’s no hard and fast age when it’s the ‘right’ time. Instead, wait for them to raise it before you bring it up.

Image: iStock.

"Having a mature conversation while having a beer or a glass of wine starts sending a message that they can drink responsibly, that you're all on the same team.

"Of course, it's not foolproof, but shows your teenager from the get-go that you're there to support each other. That you're not a barrier to constrict them from socialising. If you become the hurdle to their social life, they will lie to you," he says.

So, should I buy it?

Rubin says in many cases, buying a teen alcohol at the right age can "help guide them through the process".

As for what age is appropriate to buy alcohol for your child, Rubin acknowledges it "totally depends" on the kid.

"This is a tough one," he says. "We know legally they should be drinking from 18, but know in reality they're drinking from about 12 or 13. In terms of what is becoming the 'drinking zone', I'd say that's from 16 onwards. So perhaps buying for a kid around 15 or 16 is a healthier, but it totally depends. You're dealing with kids of different levels of maturity and some will deal better than others."

Giving the teen "one or two" drinks gives the teenager boundaries, Rubin believes. That way, if they come home drunk and clearly have had more than that to drink, you're able to discipline them because you put those boundaries in place.

Giving a teen space might be key

More than anything, though, Rubin stresses guiding a teenager through drinking is about building trust. And naturally, that's far easier said than done.

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"As a very general rule, when these conversations start, if you can show them you trust them, it's setting a precedent for a child to thrive on."

For example, approaching the conversations positively and starting them by inferring you trust your child, you're inherently building them up to have a much healthier relationship with alcohol. They will have less reason to rebel because rebellion suddenly becomes less exciting.

"A lot of kids struggle to communicate because they're over-scrutinised and checked in on too much. I tell a lot of my teenage patients that they would have more control if they communicate. If they lead the communication with their parents, their parents will be less-stressed," Rubin said.

"As is the case of most relationships, it's about communication. If you're always checking in on your child's Facebook page, you might be over doing it. It's crucial to have healthy dialogue in the relationship from the beginning."

Ultimately, it's about "aligning the parents a little but more with the kids".

The ability to get down on their level without being their friend. And with that, hopefully, comes open communication around drinking.

How do you deal with the prospect of your teenager drinking?

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