Facing the Challenges of Under Age Drinking

In 2104 the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) released a report based on a survey of Australian Principals. The release of this report provided a timely opportunity to contextualize why we have to continually keep underage drinking at the forefront of our well-being programme at Scotch and the importance of discussions about this issue within the family home.

In essence the ANCD report highlights that Principals believe the use of alcohol has a significant and negative impact on the well-being of students' behavior and academic performance. The reality is that underage consumption virtually always takes place away from the school setting. Students who are exposed to unacceptable levels of alcohol, or other drugs, simply underperform and experience difficulties at school.

If you are reading this article as a parent of a Junior or Middle School student you may attempt to rationalise that the issues raised only pertain to parents of Senior School students and underage alcohol consumption is not yet relevant to your situation. If this is the case, then I urge you to re-think your position and keep reading. In the blink of an eye you will be the parent of an adolescent who will require your support, guidance, wisdom and direction on many social issues such as alcohol.

What follows is not a moralistic lecture, but a synopsis of a matter that requires constant attention and action. I learnt many years ago not to throw stones in glasshouses. As partners in the educational and personal development journey of your son, we must all try and emanate clear and consistent messages on the things that really matter when it comes to the welfare of our young men; underage alcohol use is just such an issue.

One of the foremost institutional experts in the USA, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH) state that

"underage alcohol is a serious public health problem. Alcohol is the most widely used substance abuse among American youth, and drinking by young people poses enormous health and safety risks." 

Taking into consideration that the legal drinking age in the USA is 21 years of age compared to 18 years of age in Australia, the following data highlights their concerns:

  • By the age of 15 more than 50% of teens have had at least 1 drink;
  • By 18 more than 70 percent of teens have had at least a drink;
  • In 2009 10.4 million young people between 12-20 reported they had had alcohol beyond just small sips in the past month; and
  • While young people may drink less, when they do drink they drink more because young people consume more than 90% of their alcohol via binge drinking.

It is the last point that is of most concern. Given that the context for underage alcohol consumption is predominantly away from the school context, it is important that parents understand the pivotal role they play in educating their son as to the dangers and inappropriateness of underage consumption, especially that of binge drinking.

The NIH highlights that parents play a seminal role in shaping young people's attitudes toward drinking; both positive and negative. This should not be surprising, however, in the busyness of life and in an attempt to maintain sanity as a parent of an adolescent, it may not always be that easy to articulate a strong stance on matters such as underage drinking. This may be especially challenging when your son tries to convince you that you are clearly the worst parent in the world,  and the only one who holds such a strong position. Do not fall for this three-card trick.

The NIH suggests that parents can assist their child and that parents should look out for some basic warning signs of underage drinking.

What can parents do?

  • Frequently speak about the dangers of binge and underage drinking;
  • Drinking responsibly if they drink;
  • Serve as positive role models in general;
  • Not make alcohol available;
  • Get to know their children's friends;
  • Have regular conversations about life in general;
  • Connect with other parents about sending clear messages about the importance of not drinking alcohol at their age;
  • Supervise parties to make sure there is no alcohol; and
  • Encourage their son to participate in healthy and fun activities that do not involve alcohol.

The last point is why we place so much value on the role of sport and co-curricular programmes in the educational journey at Scotch.

What are some signs that parents and schools can watch for?

  • Changes in mood, including anger and irritability;
  • Academic and/or behavioural problems at school;
  • Rebelliousness;
  • A sudden change in friendship circles;
  • Low levels of energy;
  • Less interest in activities they used to really enjoy and/or a sudden loss in care of appearance;
  • Finding alcohol among a boys things and/or missing alcohol kept in the home;
  • Smelling alcohol on their breath;
  • Problems concentrating and/or remembering;
  • Slurred speech; and
  • Challenges with physical coordination.

Clearly these are just pointers. Parents should not panic at the first sign of one of these. They are merely as a guide if concerned. It is imperative that you liaise with the school to assess if such behaviour changes have been obvious in other settings. We are here to work with families to ensure that the well-being of all boys is a priority.

What I will say, is that if students consume excessive alcohol on weekends, and please understand that any underage alcohol consumption is inappropriate, it will take at least two to three days to fully resume normal activity. As such academic performance, can be significantly harmed. Furthermore, the frontal lobe of the adolescent brain is still developing until approximately the age of 21. Put simply, underage drinking and/or any other form of substance use is a well-being hazard; it is also illegal.

I have had discussions over many years and heard some alarming statements such as "I give my son a 6 pack so that he will only drink a small amount." Let me say that such thinking is seriously flawed and I will never be convinced otherwise. Apart from the obvious fact that the boy is underage by law, after 6 drinks they will be unable to make a rationale decision not to have more.

Reports such as the one from the ANCD, simply highlight that we must remain vigilant to the issue of underage alcohol consumption. A positive fact to remember is that it is still the minority of students who are involved in significant levels of underage drinking. Our job is simply to keep the issue at the forefront for our boys so that they have the information and support to deal with this important matter when they are faced with peer pressure or misleading information aimed at getting them to drink.

Keeping an open line of communication is essential, but remember, boys need parents not simply more acquiescing friends.