Keeping teens safe when alcohol comes on the scene

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Alcohol is a part of most of our lives here in Australia. We drink to relax, to celebrate, to commiserate and to be social.

I wouldn’t mind betting that alcohol has been part of most, if not all, the social gatherings you’ve attended this year. It’s little wonder then that our kids often come to see alcohol as a normal part of their own social lives as they become old enough to organise social gatherings for themselves. Knowing how to handle the issue of alcohol and teenagers is difficult at the best of times, and I hear that the issue can feel even trickier to manage in households where one parent works away. I guess that’s because it’s an area where parents often disagree, and any area of parental disagreement will be harder to manage where one parent works FIFO.

Alcohol use among teenagers is a topic on which people often disagree. Ask around in your group of friends and you’ll probably see what I mean. Some people are of the opinion that teenagers shouldn’t drink at all, and so they take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach (thinking that this means their kids won’t drink). Others think that “all teenagers drink and there’s not much you can do about it” and so take a disinterested and hands-off approach, believing that nothing they do or say will make any difference. Others still seem to think that getting drunk regularly is some sort of ‘rite of passage’ associated with popular teenagers, and so actively encourage drinking by buying their kids booze to take to parties.

Obviously, managing the issue in a house with teenagers is going to be more difficult if you and your partner hold different opinions. If this is the case, you don’t need to give up and do nothing. I’m not sure why, but I’ve noticed that adults do frequently give up on this issue. This seems to be true whether or not the family is a single-parent family, a family with a step-parent or a family with two parents. I guess this is because alcohol really is everywhere and it can feel like nothing we do will make any difference. This is understandable but in reality there is a lot of information available to help parents make decisions about alcohol and their teenagers. Fantastic information and resources by experts in the drug and alcohol field of are available online and I’ve listed some for you below.

You’ll notice that the approach recommended by many health professionals is one based on the principle of ‘harm minimisation’. This approach means that we accept that alcohol is part of our society and commit to educating our kids about the risks associated with its use, and how to stay safe if they do decide to drink. It’s hoped that by giving kids enough quality information, they will make sensible decisions about drinking (or at the very least be less likely to come by harm because of alcohol).

I agree with this approach and think that it’s important to talk to kids about the risks associated with drinking excessively, which include*:

It’s also very important to talk with kids about ways in which they can minimise the risks associated with drinking alcohol. Examples are:

For you parents, here are a few general tips:

A word or two about FIFO families:

In my opinion, it’s OK to have different rules according to whether the FIFO worker is home or not. This can sometimes be necessary on practical grounds anyway. For example, if there are younger children in the house it can be impossible to pick teenagers up from a party late at night. It’s also impossible to assure your teenager that you’ll be there for them any hour of the day or night if there is only one of you at home and there are other kids or commitments. Teenagers might not like this reality but most will be able to understand it. Given this, some households only allow teenagers to go to parties on the weekends that the FIFO worker is home. The success of this sort of arrangement would obviously depend on the roster. It’s likely to work well if dad (or mum if she’s the one who works away) is home every second weekend, and it’s much less likely to work if the swings away are longer.

It’s normal for teenagers to want to be more independent and more separate from their parents. This normal phase feels particularly challenging to the parent who works away,who sometimes think that their child has pulled back from them because they work away. The parent working away can come to feel totally out of the loop and believe they have no influence on their child’s behaviour, especially around difficult topics like alcohol. Because this feels so horrible, many parents protect themselves by pulling back totally and becoming disinterested in what is happening in their children’s lives (which of course increases any distance that was already there!) Parents who work away may need to work harder at the relationship than in the past and look for new ways to stay in touch, but it can be done. Texting and using social media media like Facebook are great ways to keep up with what’s going on. It’s also important to keep in the loop by scheduling regular parenting conversations with your child’s other parent (whether or not you are together).

As I often say, regularly weigh up the pros and cons of FIFO for your particular family situation and keep talking about the issues facing your family.

Additional resources:

# this information is from Paul Dillon’s book, above.

* this information relates particularly to unsupervised teenage drinking and comes from the site www.alcohol.gov.au

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