Saturday, January 12, 2013

Parenting the teenager who drinks alcohol

I was recently listening to the radio and heard an announcement about a new government initiative regarding drinking alcohol. The programme is called DrinkWise Australia. Part of it is about parents dealing with teenagers who drink. In my recent book - Working with drug and alcohol users - I discuss in depth the area of teenagers and alcohol and drug use. I decided to go to the website and have a look to see what they had to say.  

The things teenagers do

This is basically what they say:

“3A Parents and carers should be advised that children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking and that for this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important.

3B For young people aged 15–17 years the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.”

“Communicate your concerns about drinking alcohol to your teen. Discuss the range of risks involved and the impact on their physical, psychological and social health. They may not agree with your views on the matter but they need to understand why you have created the rules that exist in your home.

Involve your teenager in the development of the rules. As you and your partner decide on the rules and boundaries have your teenager with you. They may not like the rules but they are more likely to follow them if they understand your reasoning.

Renegotiate rules as they become dated – every six months. If you’ve created a set of rules around alcohol for a 15 year old, these need to be re-examined to suit different stages in your teen’s development.” (end quote)

Teenage bonding

In essence they are advising parents to tell their teenagers not to drink or at least have very restricted drinking.

In my book I note that there are two approaches here that parents can use.

1. To do what DrinkWise Australia suggests and recommend no alcohol use and possibly use punishments if they do not keep to those rules.

2. To not make any statements to the teenager about alcohol use being ‘bad’ and something you disapprove of. The parent does not tell the teenager not to drink. You simply listen to them talk about their drinking and make comments from time to time such as reflective listening or appreciating them being open with you.

The advantage to number 1 approach is it gives the teenager a clear sense of what is right and wrong which they will incorporate from the parents. The disadvantage of approach 2 is the teenager does not get the clear boundary set by the parents. 

The disadvantage to number 1 is you ‘loose’ the teenager in varying degrees. As soon as the teenager hears the parents say “don’t drink” it is likely from then on they will not get the truth about the drinking. The teenager who is drinking will either deny it completely or give the parents a significantly modified version that understates the amount they are drinking. Even if the parents deliver the ‘Don’t drink’ message in a soft form the teenager will still usually ‘hide’ their drinking at least to some degree.

This can be a problem as it can damage the relationship with the teenager in that they withdraw from the relationship with the parents. Hence they can experience more of a sense of isolation from the family. The teenager thinks, 

“I can’t tell my parents stuff as they will (disapprove, lecture me, worry about me....)”

If this is minor the negative effects are not so bad but if the teenager experiences it to a significant degree then it can be quite a problem.

Pick up girls

One thing you do not want is a teenager who feels isolated from the parents and family. The more a teenager has a sense of isolation the more psychologically vulnerable they are. This is why the most basic ‘rule’ of parenting a teenager is never break off the lines of communication. No matter how offensively they have behaved it is strongly advised that a parent never ceases communication with the teenager.

If they stop telling parents about their drinking, what else are they not telling the parents? If they stop talking with the parents about sensitive issues like drug and alcohol use that usually results in them giving more power and influence to the peers as they become the teenager’s main confidant rather than the parents. Obviously an undesirable situation.

As stated before approach 2 does not give the teenager a clear boundary set by the parents about drinking. However it is more likely to avoid the difficulties just mentioned which go along with approach 1. 

Approach 1 = directing from the front

Approach 2 = persuading from behind

Two women

In approach 2 the parents do not openly state that the teenager should not drink or take drugs. They simply listen to the teenager, reflect back to them and generally keep the teenager talking. As I said before the downside of this approach is that it gives implicit permission for the teenager to use alcohol but it does not have the negatives of damaging the relationship with the teenager that approach 1 can. Approach 2 tends to give the teenager a sense of a connection with the parents and the parents can become a key person who the teenager confides in. The parents can remain more influential in the teenager psyche for longer. This reduces the negative impact that can come from ‘advice’ given by peers. Also the teenager does not experience a sense of isolation which makes them more psychologically robust.

The parent would tend to be saying things like
That’s a good point
What do yo think would happen if you did this..?
It seems like that worries you

It’s more of a counselling approach to parenting but if at all possible the parent should avoid becoming a ‘therapist’ to the child. Unlike approach 1 which is a directive approach, approach 2 is persuading from behind. This is done by highlighting certain points and ignoring other points. It’s a much more subtle approach to the parenting of the teenager.

As so often happens when dealing with teenagers about alcohol use the parents are left with two bad choices. The goal is to choose the least bad one. Both approaches have positives and negatives.

Vader in Japan
Parents have all sorts of different appraoches to teenagers depending on their own personalities.

However as also is the case in parenting often the best approach to use ends up being dependent on the personality of the child and the parent. If the teenager tends to be somewhat conservative in their attitudes and somewhat conforming then approach 1 may be best. If one has a strong willed, rebellious teenager who is in a group who use alcohol and drugs then approach 2 may be the best choice. In these circumstances to use the approach suggested by DrinkWise Australia could result in some quite negative outcomes.


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