Many parents accept that trying alcohol for the first time is a part of most teenagers’ growing up and, as long as their child is doing it sensibly and in moderation, then it’s OK. But it’s important for parents to recognise whether their child is using alcohol for recreational consumption or they are drinking to cope with problems they are facing.
From copying parents’ drinking habits; or wanting to be like their friends and older siblings; to having problems with themselves, family, school, or friends; the list is endless when it comes to why children begin drinking. As a parent, you should be able to spot the warning signs that your child is developing a compulsive dependency on alcohol.
Research by the independent UK-wide alcohol education charity Drinkaware has found that out of the 53% of young people aged 13–17 who have had a whole alcoholic drink, 43% have reported drinking for any coping reason and specifically 30% have reported drinking to forget about their problems. Research shows that drinking to cope is associated with both anxiety and depressive symptoms and further alcohol abuse.
Jan Willem Poot is the founder of Yes We Can Youth Clinics, a globally recognised international residential treatment centre in the Netherlands, which specialises in young people (13–25 years old) with complex behavioural disorders, addictions, and related behavioural problems.
Alcohol addiction is one of the most common addictions treated at the clinic and Jan Willem says there are some warning signs that parents can look out for.
Look out for signs of intoxication
If you suspect your child is drinking excessively on a regular basis, or that they are drinking on their own or during the daytime, or if you think they often look hungover, you should listen to your instincts and talk to them about what’s going on.
A change in behaviour
Your child might seem increasingly volatile, angry, more withdrawn, more secretive, constantly upset, or unmotivated. Children and teens who abuse alcohol have significant problematic behaviours and psychological changes associated with drinking. Impaired judgement, aggressive behaviour, or inappropriate sexual behaviour are all signs your child could be abusing alcohol.
Keep an eye on their academic performance
Children and teenagers can be very good at hiding their dependence on alcohol from their parents, but struggle when it comes to keeping up their performance at school. A rapid decline in academic performance should be investigated. Talk to your child and talk to their teachers, check their attendance, and try to find the root of the problem.
Be aware of who your child is spending time with. Teenagers often begin using and abusing alcohol when they start spending time with new friends. Of course, your child is going to make and break friendships growing up, but, if your child seems to have dropped his or her old friends in favour of new ones, pay attention, particularly if you notice their behaviour has changed as well.
We all know that teenagers are renowned for being stroppy and rebellious, but it’s important you ensure that their behaviour is down to them being a teenager and not something more. Growing up and going through puberty is a difficult time and young people have many things that could worry, scare, or pressure them. They may believe that alcohol is the solution to exam stress, not fitting in with peers, or conflict at home. As parents, we need to teach children that drinking is not a good way to deal with difficult feelings.
Jan Willem advises parents to communicate with their children: ‘Talk to them about everything; be open and honest. Tell them what the consequences of alcohol abuse can be, but don’t lecture them. Show them that you’re worried but also let them go out and let them experience – however, always stay connected.’
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg.