Parents should not underestimate the power they have to influence their child’s drinking choices at leavers’ celebrations, experts advise. Refusing to provide alcohol and being clear about a preference that they do not drink has been shown to reduce young people’s alcohol consumption.

In a survey of leavers at the 2009 celebrations on Rottnest, those who thought their parents would approve of them drinking more than four standard drinks in one sitting reported heavier alcohol use.

“When there is a consistent and firm message about low-risk drinking, that does seem to influence young people’s drinking habits, ” lead researcher Tina Lam, from the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI), said.

“Yes, their peers are a huge influence but even by this age at 17, parents still matter.

“Supplying your child with alcohol is an implicit endorsement of their drinking, typically young people wouldn’t have a single source for their alcohol . . . so if you were to supply your child with alcohol it is quite likely that they would not just be drinking what you have provided but be using that to supplement the other supplies.”

Tapping into a supply of alcohol was not difficult, with the main source being friends, some of whom were already over 18 and able to buy it legally.

Dr Lam advised parents to tell their child they would prefer that they did not drink at all but if they were planning to drink then to offer them strategies on how to do so safely.

“To put it in a more youth-friendly way you can say ‘this is a way you can feel less hungover and keep you and your mates out of trouble with the cops’.”

This would include drinking plenty of water between alcoholic beverages, eating regularly and not skipping meals and not mixing alcohol and energy drinks or other sources of caffeine.

Scientific studies which have detected subtle effects of alcohol on young brains have added weight to warnings for under-18s. No alcohol is best for adolescents, according to National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines. Heavy drinking has cognitive impacts on memory and problem solving and it is thought the effect is worse for adolescents whose brains are still developing.

“For me it is sufficient evidence to change what I might have done as a parent, it’s made me much more conservative, ” NDRI director Steve Allsop said.

Parents should have a series of conversations with their child in the lead-up to the event, he said.

“Ask them ‘what would concern you if you got intoxicated, what would be the biggest worry that you would have’ and that might vary from child to child . . . some might be worried about sexual exploitation, some would be worried about the risk of violence, some would be worried about brain injury and some would be worried about damage to their reputation, ” he said. “Sometimes talking about how they can look after their mates is a good way of learning how they can look after themselves in a non-confrontational way.”

Professor Allsop suggested that parents encourage leavers to get together beforehand to talk about how they could have a good but safe time. It was also a smart idea for parents to network and discuss their children’s plans.

WA Commissioner for Children and Young People Michelle Scott said parents should not accept that underage drinking was normal and realise they had the power to help their child make good choices. “Young people say parents have the most influence on if and how they drink but parental disapproval alone does little to change their attitude or behaviour, ” she said. “They want their parent’s guidance about drinking alcohol and dislike it when their parents drink to excess.”

Tips for leavers:

  • Stay with your mates, don’t leave them behind.
  • Organise a place to meet up if you get separated.
  • If you’re celebrating on Rottnest or in Dunsborough, always wear your leavers’ wristband and take photo ID with you.
  • Plan how you will get there and how you will get home.
  • Don’t accept rides with anyone you don’t know or who you suspect may have been drinking.
  • Take pre-prepared meals with you and eat regularly.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Don’t mix alcohol and energy drinks.
  • Keep your parents and loved ones up to date with what’s happening.

SOURCE: Leavers WA, McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, National Drug Research Institute

© The West Australian

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