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Expert tips for parents who discover that their teenager drinks alcohol

Teenagers will always push the boundaries, here is what you should do if you find out your teen is drinking over the holiday period, writes Dr Gerry McCarney.

Image: PA Wire/PA Images

ALCOHOL IS SO normalised in our society that we sometimes forget that supplying alcohol to someone under 18 without their parents’ permission is against the law.

Christmas or not, giving drink to children is not just against the law – it’s damaging to their developing bodies and brains. Human brains keep developing into the early to mid-twenties.

The really uncomfortable truth is something that we all know on some level – that in order to keep our children safe, we need to start thinking about our own drinking because the example we set is one of the most powerful influences on our children’s future behaviour.

Start with this simple Drinks Calculator and get a quick assessment of your own drinking. It only takes a minute.

Drinking alcohol effects our behaviour, so we need to consider this if we are to use alcohol in front of our children, because what we do and say affects their decision making in relation to their own substance use.

It won’t be news to parents of teenagers that they will always try and push the boundaries and rules that keep them safe – it’s their job as they test the world around them. And it’s the parent’s role to set the boundaries and teach the reasons why the boundaries exist so that we can guide them safely to adulthood.

What if the break the rules?

So say you’ve heeded all the medical advice and set a ‘no alcohol under 18’ rule and your child breaks the rules and comes home drunk. It’s a common problem but one that people really struggle with.

So what do you do? Chalk it down to experience and hope they learn their lesson?

It might be easier to pretend it’s not happening – but actually, it’s the perfect opportunity to have a conversation and to figure out what’s going on with your teen so that you can help prevent it from happening again in the future.

Here’s your step-by-step guide to handling the situation:

  • Stay calm

This isn’t the time to get angry. Shouting at or giving a lecture to an intoxicated child is more likely to yield an unwanted reaction and is less effective than speaking when they are sober and rested.

The key is to show your displeasure but to WAIT to have the discussion about the incident.  

  • Make sure they’re safe

Make sure your child is safe – this depends on how much alcohol they have consumed.

Try and find out what they’ve had to drink. This may involve asking questions of friends who are more sober. Mostly, you will be able to let them sleep it off but it’s important to consider staying with them while they sleep in case they vomit.

If they have had a lot to drink, they may need medical attention.

Be aware of the signs of alcohol poisoning which include irregular breathing, pale and clammy and bluish tinged skin, low body temperature, vomiting and seizures.
  • Listen

When they’ve sobered up, use active listening to find out as much as possible about what happened.

Start by asking open questions – this means questions that don’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, questions like the following: 

  • Tell me what happened?
  • Who was with you?
  • How did you feel when that happened?
  • Why do you think this makes us concerned?

After this, it is possible to get more specific information by the use of closed questions such as: 

  • Did you feel anxious or under pressure?
  • Had you planned to get drunk?
  • Where did you get the alcohol?
  • Were you aware of how much they were drinking?
  • Did you drink before you left the house?
  • Did it ruin your night?
  • Did your friends all look out for each other- was anyone left behind?

Think about what your child needs to know so that it doesn’t happen again. Factual information about risks and how to reduce harm is helpful.

Help them learn

Without overwhelming them, give them some information, based on what is shared with you.

For example:

  1. The dangers of mixing drinks and drinking very quickly
  2. How too much alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning
  3. The risk of accidents and injuries
  4. How being out of control can leave them vulnerable or behaving in a way they might regret
  • Give a consequence

This doesn’t mean blaming the child. It means giving a clear message that you don’t approve of the behaviour and the reasons why.

Consequences might be taking away a mobile phone for a period of time, reducing pocket money, expecting them home earlier in future, or grounding.  

Setting boundaries and using rewards and consequences are considered effective parenting practice and it works. The purpose is, of course, to keep our children safe, not to damage our relationships with them by being overly authoritative.

How to stop it happening again

Discuss with them which rules need to be put in place to stop it happening again. This doesn’t mean locking them in a room, but working collaboratively and taking steps so that you can let them go out without worrying about this happening again.

Make sure that they know you’re doing this because you care about them and want to keep them safe.

Dr Gerry McCarney is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. The HSE booklet, Alcohol and Drugs: A Parents’ Guide www.askaboutalcohol.ie also contains information on what to do if you think your child is taking drugs, how to handle resistance, your guide to parties, building resilience and handling emergency situations

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