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Here’s a tip: quit the sips

One question we’re always asked is why do we have a problem with alcohol in Australia and the Europeans don’t?

Parents who ask this question often refer to the ‘European’ culture of giving young children a sip of alcohol as way to prevent problematic alcohol use later in life. The fact is that when it comes to alcohol consumption, few countries are immune from the pervasiveness of alcohol harm. The ‘European’ culture of drinking is not a protective factor when it comes to preventing alcohol misuse as some incorrectly believe. In fact, according to World Health Organisation, most European countries also have a problem with 15-19 year olds drinking 6 or more standard drinks in one session.

Recently published research supports previous studies that indicate that giving young children a ‘sip’ of alcohol to teach them ‘how to drink responsibly’ is not only ill-conceived, it’s also likely to lead to problematic alcohol use.

The research, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in March this year, details a US study involving 561 students who had been allowed by their parents to sip wine or beer at home before they turned 11. The study provides clear evidence that while parents who give their children a drink occasionally may believe that it’s educating them about responsible drinking and doing no harm, the children in the study were four times more likely to binge drink in high school.

Much of what we know about the ‘learning to drink at home’ approach is modelled around the European tradition of serving alcohol to children while enjoying food. However, times have changed, and a growing body of evidence indicates that the ‘European’ model is now outdated and doesn’t take into account changes in society along with different cultures and drinking patterns. Young people are now exposed to a barrage of influence from various forms of media and marketing which can include risky drinking habits.

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Research also debunks the commonly held belief that if you adopt an abstinence approach to children’s drinking (you are strict about no alcohol before 18), these kids will ‘go crazy’ and drink to excess once they reach the legal drinking age. The most effective approach to parenting when it comes to alcohol is for parents to model moderate drinking habits and communicate their values and expectations about alcohol use. Parents should approach the discussion about alcohol consumption focusing on the fact that alcohol, even in small amounts, can have adverse effects on the developing brain, and that the legal drinking age is designed to protect young, inexperienced people from getting into risky or harmful situations. A no-drinking approach before 18 is recommended by the Australian Drug Foundation and supported by evidence that the brain continues to develop even through to the mid-20s.

As with most challenging issues that parents are faced with, moderation is the rule when it comes to the messages we provide. Parents should be neither too laid back about drinking nor too rigid. Avoid condemning or condoning alcohol use, set some clear boundaries, be consistent and monitor what your children are being exposed to as well as the type of behaviour you are modelling.

Visit The Other Talk for more information on alcohol, other drugs and young people.