Alcohol and teens - best approach for parents?

As George Bernard Shaw said (probably - it definitely wasn't Oscar Wilde, no matter what you've been told!) - 'Youth is wasted on the young'. But while I'd love not to ache when I get up after sitting still for too you, and to think more longingly of a night out dancing than an early night with a good book, I wouldn't trade middle age for teenage-hood again. It's a jungle out there for young people.

Social media is a double edged sword. I have no doubt that the cyber-bullying we hear so much about plays a major role in the increase in mental health problems among young people I've seen in my surgery in recent years. Bullying has always been vile (and cowardly) - but at least you used to be able to escape it at home. The young people I see are defined by their Facebook status and the number of 'likes' their comments generate - and they can't escape harassment if it follows them into their bedrooms.

We have seen stark evidence of this just today. A new report from the NSPCC shows that in the last year, almost 19,000 were treated at hospital for self-harm last year - an increase of 14% compared to the previous year. The NSPCC lays the blame squarely at the door of social media, and the fact that they can never switch off or escape.

It has also taken peer pressure to a new level. Every minute of a night out is photographed and shared - and once it's out there, you can't take it back. If you're face down in a gutter with vomit all over your face, you're fair game - and everyone will know about it by the next morning. Small wonder that almost half of youngsters have 'untagged' themselves in at least one online picture.

Which brings us to alcohol. Christmas is coming and for many of my patients, normal rules go out the window at the festive season. After all, everyone drinks at Christmas, don't they? Well, no - or at least, they shouldn't. The Chief Medical Officer for England recommends all young people should be alcohol-free until they're 15 - and there's plenty of evidence to back up this advice. There's plenty of debate about whether the 'continental approach' - allowing young people small amounts of alcohol when they're supervised, to demystify it - is a better approach. But there's no scientific evidence to prove this gives children a responsible attitude to drinking in later life . In fact, for some people starting to drinking alcohol early may be linked with a higher risk of heavy drinking in later life .

Then there's the idea that 'everyone is doing it, so surely my youngster will be missing out?'. Again, no. In 2003, one in five 11-15 year olds drank at least once a week - by 2014, that figure had dropped to one in 25. In the last 11 years, the proportion of 11-15 year olds who have never drunk alcohol has increased from two in five to two in three - so we can categorically say most under-16s have never drunk. Yes, there will be peer pressure for some - but that's where an honest conversation comes in.

Young people may believe they're grown up in many respects, but their bodies have different ideas. The hormonal changes children go through at puberty make them more likely to taking risks. Alcohol can further impair their judgement, leaving them vulnerable. Over a third of 16- and 17-year-olds have walked home alone at night when drunk. Their brains are developing, and alcohol is known to have a major effect on memory, concentration and attention span. Teenage years are a crucial age for learning, with your life-long prospects often dependent on how you perform. We don't know enough about the impact of alcohol on the adolescent brain, but we do know it's not good - and it's definitely even more marked than in adulthood.

Young people are at significant risk of alcohol poisoning - over 4,000 under-16s in the UK alone end up in hospital with alcohol poisoning every year. And that's before we even get started on unprotected sex, and the fact that getting drunk even once is linked to a higher risk of teenage pregnancy .

As an adult, you may feel you're the last person your teenagers will listen to. But that's far from the truth too. Teenagers are more likely to listen to their parents than anyone else, even if they don't tell you that . So don't wait for them to talk to you - and start the conversation the sooner the better. Among young people who do drink alcohol, the average age to start is 13 years old, so you want to have a civilised conversation about it before they get misinformation from somebody else.

Don't worry about them losing respect for you if you tell them not to drink when you don't abstain from alcohol yourself. Have the discussion about differences between your bodies. But of course, it's going to be much harder for them to take you seriously if they regularly see you severely under the influence. The Chief Medical Officer recommends no more than 14 units a week, spread over several days, for a reason. Where alcohol and your kids are concerned, it really is good to talk - but don't put yourself at a disadvantage.

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