Peacefully Parenting our Teenagers

How can parents navigate teenage use of alcohol?

Is it possible to avoid constant power struggles with your teen (or teen to be!)?  In this audio interview, Casey O'Roarty of Joyful Courage podcasts interviews and generally chats with Genevieve on the subject of Parenting Teenagers.  Both being parent educators and parents of teens Genevieve and Casey talk about some of their personal experiences.

Genevieve talks about some of the classic stumbling blocks that result in parents and their teenage children getting into power struggles.  Continued below ..

In this audio Podcast interview, Genevieve and Casey tackle the following FAQs ...

  • What needs to change in the communication dynamics to ensure that our teenagers feel safe to open up to us?

  • Is it better to let your teenager drink alcohol at home, does it help them get used to drinking in moderation and if so is this a good move?

  • How did Genevieve deal with the first situation when her son drank alcohol and what did the communication look like before and after?

  • What are the impacts of alcohol on the teenage brain?

  • Is teenage rebellion unavoidable?

teen boy alcohol

Teenagers and alcohol

New research from the University of New South Wales provides powerful evidence on outcomes for underage alcohol consumption.

“Discouraging or delaying alcohol use in adolescence is likely to have substantial benefits in adulthood in terms of preventing harmful drinking behaviours which adversely affect health and wellbeing,” said Dr Silins, lead author of the stufy.

Read more about this study

The biggest resilience factors to protect your child from alcohol or drug dependence

  • Open lines of communication all throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood
  • Non-punitive discipline.  Kids who fear getting in trouble learn to lie and are discouraged from bringing their problems and mistakes to their parent
  • Educate yourself so you can educate your child on the impacts of alcohol on the brain
  • Educate yourself and your child on the risk factors associated with alcohol in terms of impaired perception and decision making
  • Keep your conversations on the topic light and free of moralising lectures
  • Explain that without being informed there can't be informed consent and the risks of drinking without understanding the impacts
  • Talk with them openly about the challenges of peer pressure, brainstorm what they can say when feeling pressured to drink
  • Whether you abstein completely or drink in moderation, talk with your children about your choices, e.g. "as an adult my body and brain can process alcohol over 12 hours while it would take your body and brain 2 weeks, while impacting your learning, memory and health."
  • Talk with them about all your've learned around alcohol in your life, were you educated and encouraged to care for your body and brain and if not, how do you feel about that
  • Equip them with healthy strategies for managing stress.  Alcohol's ability to numb turbulant emotions is a huge temptation for those who struggle to manage their feelings
  • Maintain a shame free and emotionally safe environment in the home.
  • Make the most of teachable moments in real life or the media, talk about the relative who got drunk at the family gathering, or the character in the film who used drinking as an excuse for bad behaviour and share your thoughts.
  • If you yourself use alcohol as self-medication, work with a counsellor and start to develop healthy emotional regulation strategies.
  • Most importantly, educate yourself so your can educate your children.

Is it inevitable that my child will drink alcohol as a teenager?

Many parents hold the belief "well it's inevitable" in relation to teens and alcohol, and hence share that message with their teen.  This can result in discounting that there always has been and still is a significant portion of teenagers who chose to not drink, or drink infrequently and in moderation.  Parents often nostalgically remember the fun that was had when they drank as teens.  Smoking cigarettes as teens may have also been quite fun and stress relieving, but for many of us when we were young, there was little awareness or education about the negative impacts.

The good and the bad of kids being less inhibited.  Alcohol helps young people (and people of all ages of course) to decrease their inhibitions and feel more relaxed and confident.  This is especially enticing for those who feel anxious in social situations.  For this effect, parents and teens alike can believe that drinking alcohol is justified and a positive thing.  Yet similar to giving young children sweets to stop their upsets, such crutches can interfere with the necessary development of healthy emotional self-regulation.

Alcohol results in inhibition of shyness and anxiety that can lead to teens feeling more confident, but it also disbands very important and necessary inhibitors that help to keep everyone safe! It's much better to equip our teens with lots of healthy coping mechanisms that equip them to manage the anxiety or insecurity they might feel in a social situation while listening with discernment to those gut feelings.  Alcohol negatively impacts a teenager's ability to assess risk which is why alcohol is related to the vast majority of injuries, crimes and acts of sexual assault and rape.  Just to be clear on this point that's rife with myths and misunderstandings itself, alcohol consumption is a contributing risk factor for either committing or being a victim of sexual assault or rape.  It is not the cause, it does not in any way grant an excuse for committing such a crime and equally alcohol consumption should never be pointed to in a way of blaming a victim. We absolutely should live in a society where individuals do not live with the risk of rape or sexual assault.

To educate our children, we need to first educate ourselves.  Arming yourself with some education on the subject will likely have a huge impact on the decisions you make around whether or not you support and advocate your teenager drinking alcohol.  It's a biggie! There is no shortage of myths, the most common one being that letting the teenager drink at home "in moderation" with the parent helps to prepare them for moderate drinking.  This video below by Nathan Mikaere Wallis helps explain why the science proves the opposite to be truer.  In response to the common defence that drinking at home teaches kids to be responsible drinkers, I often ask parents if they also practice sharing (other) drugs with their child to help them learn to manage drugs in a safe environment. If one seems more ridiculous than the other, it's well worth really reflecting on our relationship with alcohol.

Long term effect of teen drinking

Adolescents who drink weekly before age 17 are two to three times more likely to binge drink, drink drive, and be dependent on alcohol in adulthood compared with peers who don’t drink, a study of 9000 adolescents across Australia and New Zealand has found.

The study published in the international journal Addiction and led by researchers from UNSW Sydney followed young people from age 13 to 30 and provides some of the most robust evidence to date that early patterns of drinking are not limited to adolescence but rather persist into adulthood and are associated with a range of alcohol related problems. Read more.

Related Resources

Video by Natan Mikaere Wallis, a New Zealand neuroscience expert.

Nathan Mikaere-Wallis discusses alcohol and the teenage brain during a presentation at Nelson College.  The film was produced for the Nelson Safer Community Council.   To watch this on the original website where it's posted, click here.

In this video, Nathan explains some of the negative impacts, including that it takes the teenager 2 weeks to recover from drinking alcohol while the adult recovers in about 24 hours. What a huge disadvantage to teenagers who are under pressure with their studies and need to activate their higher thinking brain, both to better manage their emotions and perform the learning and tasks required.

Quoting Nathan Mikaere-Wallis in this video:   "The other area that's affected under the age of 21 is the prefrontal cortex. That's where your really brainy higher intelligence is. So the two parts of the brain damaged by alcohol are your higher intelligence and your ability to remember stuff, so you probably have noticed already those are exactly the parts you need for school work. The younger your child is when you have a beer with them, the more likely they are to have an alcohol or drug problem. The earlier you have alcohol with your child, the earlier you validate the use of alcohol."

 

Educating ourselves as parents on the effects of alcohol on the teenage brain helps us make decisions based on science and facts instead of popular societal myths, following the crowd, believing "well it's inevitable" and hence sharing that message with our teen can result in discounting that there always has been and still is a significant portion of teenagers who chose to not drink, or drink infrequently and in moderation.  Parents often nostalgically remember the fun that we had when we drank as teens. Smoking cigarettes as teens may have also been quite fun, but for many of us when we were young, there was little awareness or education about the negative impacts.

Yes, alcohol helps kids decrease their inhibitions and feel more relaxed and confident in social situations, but it also disbands very important and necessary inhibitors that help to keep everyone safe! It's much better to equip our teens with lots of healthy coping mechanisms that equip them to manage the anxiety or insecurity they might feel in a social situation while listening with discernment to those gut feelings.

In this video, Nathan explains some of the negative impacts, including that it takes the teenager 2 weeks to recover from drinking alcohol while the adult recovers in about 24 hours. What a huge disadvantage to teenagers who are under pressure with their studies and need to activate their higher thinking brain, both to better manage their emotions and perform the learning and tasks required.

Arming yourself with some education on the subject will likely have a huge impact on the decisions you make around whether or not you support and advocate your teenager drinking alcohol. It's a biggie! There is no shortage of myths, the most common one being that letting the teenager drink at home "in moderation" with the parent helps to prepare them for moderate drinking. This video helps explain why the science proves the opposite to be truer. In response to the common defence that drinking at home teaches kids to be responsible drinkers, I often ask parents if they also practice sharing (other) drugs with their child to help them learn to manage drugs in a safe environment. If one seems more ridiculous than the other, it's well worth really reflecting on our relationship with alcohol.

Related Resources

Learning more about the science on the topic.

Relevant studies relating to the Teenage brain and alcohol

The website alcoholthinkagain.com.au offers some helpful information to parents of teenagers on the impacts of alcohol on the teenage brain and offers advice and tips accordingly.  From their website:

Impact of alcohol on the developing brain

Alcohol affects two crucial parts of the brain which are vulnerable when a teenager is developing. This can result in irreversible brain changes that can impact decision making, personality, memory and learning.

How does alcohol affect messages in the body?

Every day, your brain passes messages from your nerve cells to your body. It needs to send the correct messages throughout your body so it functions correctly.

Alcohol acts on the nerve cells of the brain and disrupts the communication between nerves cells and other cells of the body. Alcohol does this by altering the actions of two major neurotransmitters in the brain.1

Neurotransmitters are chemical messages, which enable nerve cells to talk to each other and to other cells in the body. Alcohol suppresses the activities of certain nerve pathways, eventually making a person appear sluggish, lethargic and slow-moving. 2

While research tells us alcohol can damage the developing brain it is not clear how much alcohol it takes to do this. For these reasons, it is recommended that for under 18’s no alcohol is the safest choice and that they delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.36

 

Alcohol’s Effects on the Adolescent Brain

Alcohol’s Effects on Memory   Among its many effects on the brain and brain function—such as impairing balance, motor coordination, and decisionmaking—alcohol interferes with the drinker’s ability to form memories (i.e., it is an amnestic agent). However, alcohol does not impair all types of memory equally. Alcohol disrupts a person’s ability to form new, lasting memories to a far greater extent than it interferes with the ability to recall previously established memories or to hold new information in memory for just a few seconds (see White and Swartzwelder 2004). One study conducted with young adults ages 21 to 29 found that intoxicated study participants could recall items on word lists immediately after the lists were presented, but they had greater difficulty recalling the information 20 minutes later (Acheson et al. 1998). Interestingly, this effect was much more powerful in the younger subjects in this age group—that is, people in their early twenties. In addition, alcohol particularly affects the ability to form explicit memories—that is, memories of facts (e.g., names and phone numbers) or events (e.g., what the drinker did the previous night).

Because different brain areas play a role in the formation of different types of memories, this pattern of alcohol-related memory impairment allows researchers to make assumptions about the brain regions that are most affected by alcohol. Thus, the pattern of memory impairment observed after intoxication is similar to that found in patients with damage to a brain area called the hippocampus.

The more informed and empowered we feel around alcohol, the more we can inform and empower our children. 

Educating ourselves as parents on the effects of alcohol on the teenage brain helps us make decisions based on science and facts instead of popular societal myths, following the crowd.  For parents to empower their children to have some resilience and ability to hold boundaries around alcohol, parents need to examine their own beliefs and behaviours around alcohol use and adult peer pressure.  Many parents buy alcohol for their teenagers because it's what other parents are doing, not realizing that they're allowing themselves to submit to peer pressure and gaining their information from the crowd rather than really digging into the research, and also exploring their core beliefs, their history and emotional patterns relating to alcohol and addiction.

I highly recommend this book Raising Drug-Free Kids by Aletha Solter.  It's relevant for parents of children of any age, it will help you to set up the healthy lines of communication and equip your child with a strong voice to resist peer pressure and the emotional regulation skills that allow your kid to maintain a more calm and confident relationship with self and with peers.

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