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How should you introduce alcohol to your teenager – if at all?

Alcohol - when should you start having conversations with your child about it? And when should you introduce it to them, if you do at all?
Mandy Saligari, therapist, author and Clinical Director of Charter Harley Street, an outpatient centre treating addiction and mental health, and Dorothy Newbury-Birch, Professor of Alcohol and Public Health Research, at the School for Social Sciences, Humanities and Law at Teeside University discussed this on Woman’s Hour.
They shared their advice and tips for parents on how to tackle the subject.

Note: In the UK it is illegal to sell alcohol to anyone aged under 18 and for under 18s to buy or attempt to buy alcohol. More guidance on the law and NHS guidelines at the bottom of the article.

Professor Dorothy Newbury-Birch, Professor of Alcohol and Public Health Research, Teesside University:

“It used to be accepted wisdom that introducing young people to small amounts of alcohol in the home was perfectly safe and a way of encouraging sensible drinking.

“I also used to think that, but now that I’m aware of the all the evidence on this subject, my view has changed completely.

“There is no such thing as safe drinking for children. Why are we teaching our children to use a drug? We wouldn’t give them a cigarette at the dinner table.

“There is no such thing as a safe age at which to start drinking. The problem is that young people, particularly teenagers, are not very good at listening to and doing what their parents tell them.

“Medical advice suggests that no child should be drinking before the age of 15 and between the ages of 15 to 17 they should be having no more than two or three units a week.”

Mandy Saligari, therapist, author and Clinical Director of Charter Harley Street, an outpatient centre treating addiction and mental health:

“Deciding whether you want to introduce your child to alcohol or not has to come down to every parent in a way because every child is different and every family culture is different.

“You want to look at how mature your child is and how able they are to recognize that what they're doing is taking on board a substance which will change how they feel, how they think and their subsequent behaviour.

“If you do introduce your child to alcohol give them small amounts.

“Most of the time parents talk about giving them alcohol alongside food because that stops it from being all about alcohol and also the food interacts with the impact the alcohol has. However, whatever it is that you do as a parent, I would suggest that you make your child conscious of what they're doing and why you doing it in the way that you are doing it. This is so they don't assume that they can drink and that the drink doesn't have a big impact on them.”

Professor Dorothy Newbury-Birch's tips for safely introducing your teenager to alcohol - if at all

"All the evidence suggests that an alcohol free childhood is the best thing you can give your child. However, I’m aware that we live in the real world and as parents we’re all trying to do the best we can. Therefore, my advice be would be:

1. "Try and have conversations about alcohol from an early age – the earlier the better."

2. "Try and make your child understand the effects of alcohol - Not just the long-term health impacts, but also the fact that as a result of drinking they might end up in a fight, arrested or even in hospital."

3. "What is your own relationship with alcohol? Children will see how you interact with it and will use it as a model for their own behaviour."

4. "Make sure you understand what the safe limits for alcohol are. Not just for children but for adults. A lot of adults aren’t aware of what constitutes a safe drinking level for them."

Mandy Saligari’s tips for safely introducing your teenager to alcohol - if at all

1. "Consider your own relationship with alcohol. That is the first place you are teaching your child about this relationship. If you use alcohol as a way to de-stress, your child has learnt that from you."

2. "Think about what alcohol you want to introduce your child to first and why. Explain that to your child. Also think about the time or situation that you decide to introduce your child to alcohol, such as over a meal."

3. "Put your child in touch with the effect that the alcohol is having. Make them understand that using something outside of themselves in an attempt to fix how they feel, is likely to lead to trouble."

You can listen to the full Woman's Hour parenting podcast on this topic on the Woman's Hour website.

The NHS guidance for parents says that children shouldn’t drink alcohol until they are at least 15 years old. If they are aged between 15 to 17 years old, they should never drink more than once a week, and they should be supervised by a parent or carer. They should never exceed the recommended adult weekly limit (14 units of alcohol).

Click here to read more guidance from the NHS.