School's out for summer – at least, it is for the thousands of youngsters who are finishing their GCSEs and A levels and will often be taking their first holiday without their parents. It may be a week (or month) of celebrating for the youngsters, but all too often that means late nights counting the flowers on the wallpaper for their anxious parents.
For many parents, that worry may be unnecessary. Newspapers seem to be full of headlines about out-of-control drunken teenagers, but in fact the number of under-18s who drink has gone down in recent years. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a flip side – those who do drink are drinking more heavily and more often, almost twice as much as they were 20 years ago.
I regularly hear from parents, especially at this time of year, who want to discuss sensible drinking with their teenagers but don't know how to start. That's why Mumtank, a group of mothers and professionals who work with young people, have been brought together by the alcohol charity Drinkaware, to let the facts get in the way of a good headline.
As summer holidays after major exams loom, many of my patients worry that setting strict ground rules for their teenagers about alcohol will encourage them to rebel. In fact, the opposite is true – young people may pretend they don’t like it, but working out boundaries together means they’re less likely to drink to excess. Of course, if you’ve made it clear there will be consequences if the 'rules' are broken, you need to stick to them, but make sure your youngster knows that you'll always be there in a crisis and reward them if they behave responsibly.
In 2009, the Chief Medical Officer published guidelines on alcohol and young people for the first time. These recommended that young people should not drink alcohol at all under the age of 15, and between 15 and 17 they should only drink under adult supervision. Research shows that the 'Continental approach' to alcohol can store up problems for later life – the earlier a child starts drinking, the higher their chances of developing alcohol abuse or dependence in their teenage years and adult life, with under-15s being most at risk.
Far from being ignored, research shows that parents have more influence than anyone else in terms of their kids' drinking and attitudes to drinking. Young people are aware of alcohol at an early age, and more likely to listen to a discussion about the long-term damage alcohol can do just before their teenage years.
Most teenagers, of course, think they'll live forever, and finger-wagging lectures about cirrhosis and stroke may go in one ear and out the other. But most of them are highly motivated to pass exams and look good – for them, concentrating on memory, reactions and attention span, and the risk that alcohol could be responsible for reducing their chances of passing exams and getting into university, may be a far more terrifying prospect. Alcohol is a diuretic, drying out the skin and making it look pale and grey. It also has almost as many calories as pure fat – not top of your danger list but certainly food for thought for your image-conscious teenager!
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