Binge drinking, UK licensing hours extended, 24 hour drinking and fights in town centres. This article gives parents a sensible way through the under age drinking minefield as well as some warnings about the consequences of heavy drinking at a young age.
It’s ten o’clock on Saturday evening. The front door slams and you are drawn to the hallway by the sound of someone falling over. Your fourteen-year-old leans on the banisters and stares at you glassy eyed.
“Wassa matter? I’m not late.” His voice squeaks defensively even though you haven’t said a word yet.
“What have you been doing?” you ask weakly, you can smell the alcohol from a yard away.
“Nothing. Wadya mean?” He turns away and staggers up the stairs attempting a huff but only managing to stumble.
What do you do? Is this the start of a problem or is it a phase? Many parents can remember experimenting with alcohol, or getting drunk to give it its common name, as teenagers but it may not help to decide how you should react.
Parentline Plus, a charity that provides a 24hour confidential helpline for parents, advises parents not to panic and to keep positive. Dinaz Engineer, supervisor of Parentline’s Croydon Helpline says, “Most teenagers do not go on to develop alcohol problems.”
It helps to know the facts. We are all, adults and teenagers alike, bad at remembering how much is safe to drink. Current medical advice says sensible drinking means drinking fewer than 21 units a week for a man and fewer than 14 for a woman. But it is binge drinking that is most harmful. A binge for a man is ten or more units in one session and seven or more units for a woman
Teenagers are drinking more alcohol more often and they are drinking at a younger age. Alcohol Concern, a national agency working to reduce alcohol misuse, states in 1990 that 11-15 year old drinkers had an average of 5.3 units per week; by 2001 this had risen to 10.5 units. In 2002 18% of 11-15 year olds drank at least once a week.
A study of 18-30 year olds carried out by University of and University of Brighton students on a work placement at Brighton & Hove Drug and Alcohol Action Team this year continues the trend. 162 university students completed a questionnaire; the average age of participants was 23. A quarter of the students admitted to drinking four or more times a week and half said they binged on alcohol every week.
The problem with starting young Alcohol Concern says is “The earlier the onset of drinking, the more likely it is that problems develop in later life.”
At the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the same concern is voiced: “It takes five to ten years of drinking before a person goes for help. Ten to twenty years ago the profile of an AA meeting was middle-aged, the majority men. Now it is fifty-fifty men and women, the majority are younger.”
John Reading of Action for Change, an organisation that aims to reduce the harm caused by drug and alcohol misuse agrees that the age of people seeking help for problem drinking is dropping year-on-year.
Though most teenagers, even those who get drunk, do not develop into alcoholics, they may however have accidents, sometimes severe enough to end up in hospital. They may suffer an overdose of alcohol, have unsafe, unplanned sex, get involved in fights or crime. Alcohol related admissions to Accident and Emergency Departments are at 70% at weekends and blames 22,000 premature deaths on alcohol abuse.
Young people who continue to binge drink regularly may also be putting themselves at risk of serious long term problems. We usually assume that young people will grow out of heavy drinking and other ‘rebellious’ behaviour but research is beginning to uncover some alarming facts about younger drinkers. Scientist have known of the effect of alcohol on a baby’s development in the womb; it seems that the brains sensitivity to alcohol continues for years.
The Foundation for Neuroscience explains, “Researchers thought that the brain’s key development finished within the first few years of life. Then recently they discovered that important brain regions continue to undergo refinement at least into a person’s early twenties. For example, one study compared the brain structure of kids aged 12 to 16 with young adults aged 23 to 30. Several brain areas showed signs that their circuits pare down and fine tune between adolescence and young adulthood. Included is the frontal cortex which helps process highly complex information.”
The result is people who remain teenagers all their lives. John Reading explains: “Teenagers do not listen to health messages; this is already known from attempts to get the safe sex message through to this age group. So by drinking heavily, teenagers may preventing themselves from maturing into more responsible behaviour.”
What should parents do? Alcohol Concern identifies the factors that help protect young people from excessive drinking as having a range of good relationships with adults, healthy standards amongst adults in the community, social and learning skills and recognition and praise for good behaviour.
Dinaz Engineer says Parentline Plus receives thousands of call on a range of issues: “Alcohol or drugs are usually part of the problem, not a single issue. We tell parents not to panic, to keep talking. Talk about responsibility and talk about choices. Don’t be negative and don’t be judgemental, that’s a complete turn-off. Give them the facts and explain the dangers and refer them to specialist help if it is needed. And don’t expect instant solutions.”
“Try to talk about what is happening in their life.” Dinaz suggests, “The young person may be dealing with unhappiness from issues in the family or even the buried grief after the death of their granny or even the family dog. If it is important to them, take it seriously.”
Also don’t forget the teenage hypocrisy radar, set a good example and think about how much you are drinking too.