A major government study found that 70 per cent of parents ‘think it’s safer to introduce their child to alcohol gradually, like they do in Europe’
Meanwhile, the number of children being treated in hospital A&E departments because they have drunk too much has risen sharply (by 32 per cent in four years), according to Dr Aric Sigman, a Fellow of the Society of Biology, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine.
“But as society wrings its hands over teenage ‘binge drinking’, we seem unaware that our approach — if we can even call it that — to children and alcohol generally has been completely at odds with what both medical research and common sense should have told us,” says Sigman. “Even doctors and nurses whom I know have been carried along with the assumption that the best way to prevent our children from drinking heavily and behaving badly as a result is to teach them to drink while they are young.
“There is a fear, too, that forbidding our children to touch alcohol will invite a backlash, in that they will actually drink more as a result, and might be more likely to become alcoholic, ” Sigman continues. “And so parents buy alcohol for their under-age children’s birthday parties, allow them to go to pubs when they are under age and serve them wine at the dinner table, thinking this will wean them on to alcohol in a controlled, responsible environment. (Incredibly, the legal age in the UK for drinking alcohol in the home is five.)
But says Dr. Sigman, while these parents might have good intentions, they might also be wrong. In a study of 428 Dutch families in 2010, researchers found that the more teenagers were allowed to drink at home, the more they drank outside the home as well. The suggestion is that teenage drinking begets more drinking.
“It is not being liberal, it’s being strict about alcohol that will prevent your child from binge drinking or developing an alcohol problem,” Dr. Sigman reports. “According to a study published in the Journal Of Studies On Alcohol And Drugs: ‘Authoritative parenting might help deter adolescents from heavy alcohol use, even when adolescents have friends who drink.’ It’s being strict about alcohol that will prevent your child from binge drinking or developing an alcohol problem.”
Parents also underestimate the impact of their own drinking habits, he continues. One of the best things they can do to minimize alcohol-related problems in their adolescents is to expose them to healthy alcohol behaviour rather than drunkenness, a New Zealand study found. But as well as raising the risk of later problems, drinking in adolescence could actually alter the structure and development of the teenage brain.
A team at the University of California examined the hippocampus in 15 to 17-year-olds. (The hippocampus is a crucial area for memory formation and learning, and it actively develops during adolescence.) All the teens came from middle to upper-class families. One group misused alcohol in that they ‘were primarily weekend binge drinkers’ (with about 17 days in between drinking episodes), and it was in this group that this key part of the brain was ‘significantly smaller’. Several other studies have produced similar results.