When is the right time to start talking alcohol with your children? At six, nine, or maybe 11? Melanie Goose discusses the drink issue
Did you know that it’s not illegal for a child of five, yes five, to drink alcohol at home or on other private premises? I didn’t. Now, I have no intention of sharing a bottle of Chablis with my six- year-old but I find that fact scary. I would feel a lot more comfortable if it was absolutely and law enforcedly a criminal offence to do this. Who in their right mind would give a small child alcohol? Well some people are, or are allowing kids access to alcohol as young as five because thousands of them are ending up in A&E each year.
Thankfully most of us fall into the ‘our kids should to be sensible about alcohol’ camp, so when should we start those oh so important chats? The consensus seems to be ‘early’. Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings says: ‘I think children become aware of alcohol long before their parents realise it or their children start asking questions. Impressions of everyday life – from watching their parents share a bottle of wine over dinner, or hearing them say “I need a drink” when they get in from work, leave a lasting impression.’
Drink Aware found in a survey that 50 per cent of parents had talked about alcohol to their children by the age of 10 and a further 32 per cent by age 10 to 14. The key thing is to share your knowledge and advice about alcohol at a relaxed time and use prompts, for example when your child sees something on the news or a television programme that involves someone drinking too much. It’s important not to lecture and to let your child know that they can always talk to you about anything, that you won’t judge them. Also remember we were all young once and we’ve all done silly things – none of us is perfect!
Some people think it’s a good idea to let your kids taste alcohol from an early age, under the guise of ‘it’s the continental way’. ‘I am not aware of research that shows that allowing children to taste alcohol early on will prevent them from having a problem with it later,’ says Dr Dominique Florin, medical director of the Medical Council on Alcohol. ‘In fact, the prevalent view is that the earlier young people start to drink, the more likely they are to have problems later. Simply put, children should not be given alcohol at all under 15. This is what the Chief Medical Officer at the time, Sir Liam Donaldson, said in 2009 and I think that’s sensible.’
Children receive alcohol education in primary school as part of the National Curriculum. The thinking is that they should know the facts before they have any experience of it themselves. This education continues right through into secondary school but children won’t learn anything about alcohol misuse until they are seven. Before then they are told about safety regarding medicines and household substances. In the last years of primary school they learn about the damaging effects of alcohol on health and other risks involved with it. The Department of Education says that children learn the basic skills for making good choices about their health and recognising and managing risky situations. This should help them to resist peer pressure when necessary and take more responsibility for their actions.
The impact of alcohol on children
It takes much longer for alcohol to leave a youngster’s system than an adult’s and alcohol can have a negative impact on the developing brain. If children drink alcohol the night before school they can do less well in lessons the next day and young people who regularly drink alcohol are twice as likely to miss school and get poor grades as those who don’t. Almost half of children excluded from school are regular drinkers.
For older teens there is the social aspect of drinking and while pricey drinks in bars and clubs or the request for ID might put some off, ‘youngsters can get around this problem’, says Florin. ‘In the past decade as clubs have become so much more expensive, young people are “pre-loading”, which is having lots to drink before they go out for the night. This can be very dangerous as they consume a lot within a short time.’
As it’s more popular and cheaper for people to drink at home now rather than going out, are kids more encouraged to get into the habit? There is no definitive evidence on this but it’s a generally held view that children will drink if parents do. ‘Children most definitely copy their parents’ bad examples, and this sort of behaviour can be seen going through generation after generation,’ says Hemmings. ‘It is part of parental responsibility to set an example, so moderate drinking is to be encouraged. There may be times when our children see us a bit tipsy after an office or Christmas party (we’re not saints!), but this should be kept to a minimum.’ It’s sound advice. Perhaps we adults need to remember that it’s not just what we say but also what we do that is important.