Avoiding Alcohol in Adolescence

The following is an excerpt from “A sobering time for parents” by SHEILA WAYMAN (printed in the Irish Times 9-01-09)

“Our approach to drinking in Ireland is not normal; we drink to get drunk,” says consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Bobby Smyth, who specialises in addiction. Every day, through his work at the Drug Treatment Centre’s offices in Dublin, he sees the collateral damage of that culture among teenagers.

“We know the younger the person starts drinking, the more likely they are to develop a dependency on alcohol in later life, the more likely they are to develop a drug problem.”

They are also much more likely to take part in risky behavior and suffer accidental injuries.  In addition, drunkenness is undoubtedly the gateway to other drugs.

The whole point of adolescence is to pick up the skills needed for an independent life. The last thing that’s needed at this stage is the “crutch” of some chemical substance.

“The longer kids avoid alcohol, the better for them” – both mentally and physically. It can cause irreversible damage to a still developing brain, not to mention the liver.

If a teenager drinks before they are 15 they are:

* Four times more likely to develop alcohol dependency than those who wait until they are 21

* Seven times more likely to be in a car crash because of drinking

* Eleven times more likely to suffer unintentional injuries after drinking


Warning Signs

The average age of starting to drink is 14. Early signs include: the chewing of mints and gum; alcohol or money disappearing from home; your child staying out for long periods.

“Talking to teenagers, they will always tell me that they can get away with it,” Smyth reports. “The way they drink, they get drunk quite quickly and sober up quite quickly.”

Is it all right for parents to drink at home in front of children?

“If you are wandering around the house twisted, certainly you are losing your moral authority,” Smyth adds. But he wouldn’t get hung up about a drink here or there, showing a restrained use of alcohol.  This can be very helpful for kids to see alcohol always used responsibly and carefully by an adult.

“Kids in Mediterranean countries don’t grow up to have a reasonable relationship to alcohol because they were introduced to it so early. They grow up to have a reasonable relationship with alcohol because of those cultures – whether you’re 13 or 30, it is not acceptable to get drunk.”

Children should learn it is something adults do and they may choose to do it, or not, as an adult. Again you explain why it is not a good idea for them to drink at this stage of their lives.


Smyth stresses the importance of teenagers having a confiding relationship with at least one of their parents, or another adult “with whom they can think through stuff that may be causing conflict with their parents”.

“A lot of parents I see have given up, they have decided they have no influence any more: ‘I’ve no control, there’s no rules. He comes and goes whenever he wants and I can’t control him’” – he has heard that from parents of teenagers as young as 13.

“Just because a teenager breaks the rules, it doesn’t mean that the rule should just be abandoned. There should be some sort of consequence.” You are making it very clear that you are not happy with the behavior. He also says it is important to explain why you think it crosses the line of acceptable behavior, such as it is unhealthy and dangerous. It holds more weight with teenagers if you do have a reason, even if they don’t agree with you.

In truth, there are so many reasons to avoid all alcohol until adulthood that it shouldn’t be a difficult debate for adults to win.  Study after study proves it.

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