Is it necessary to teach teenagers how to drink?

Teenage alcoholism.  It's not too early for treatment.The decision all parents of teenagers will inevitably have to make is how to promote the use of alcohol. According to a major survey for the NHS, 11-15 year-old children who drink alcohol consume an average of 14.5 units a week. As these figures resemble, and in many cases, even supersede the amount consumed by adults it has stimulated debate and extensive research into the implications of this type of consumption.

A major government study has identified that these figures reflect the approach adopted by the middle class.  Affluent, liberal families are most inclined to embrace the European practice of gradually introducing their child to alcohol, by buying it for them and allowing it to be consumed within the safety of the home. Whether practicing an authoritarian parenting style when it comes to alcohol related matters or advocating a liberal approach, the objective of all parents regardless of culture or socio economic status seems to be the same; a desire to prevent children from becoming problem drinkers.

Alcohol plays a significant part in adult life for most Britons. Whether in moderation or excess, most of us drink because it lessens our control over thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This is because alcohol exerts its effects in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for emotional and impulse control. Of course, most of us prefer to consider the reasons in rather less technical terms; we drink because we find it enjoyable, sociable and relaxing.

The adverse effects of alcohol on the teenage brain

The teenage brain is highly flexible and excitable and will therefore change quickly in response to new influences, which is explains why children learn so easily. However, the danger of early exposure to alcohol is that it more noticeably primes the brain to enjoy alcohol by creating strong links between the substance and the pleasure centres in the brain. This means that the young adult’s brain is more likely to become permanently affected by the temporary effect of alcohol and the classic binge drinking.  Follow up studies indicate that this increases the tendency to engage in risk-taking behaviour later on.

The notion of ‘drinking sensibly’ is favoured by most drinkers and forms the basis of what most it trying to instil in young people. However, few perhaps realize that this philosophy, while advocated by educational bodies, is driven by the drink industry that sponsors these campaigns. Meanwhile the number of young people being treated in hospital for having drunk too much is reported to have risen by 32% in the last 4 years. And while this increase is likely influenced by a number of factors, it appears that parental attitudes play a part.

The liberal approach to teenage drinking can be taken to reflect a fear amongst parents, that by forbidding our children to touch alcohol, we are inadvertently creating a back lash, causing them to drink too much and in an out-of-control manner. A growing body of research suggest however, that the opposite is the case, where the more the children drink in the home, the more they drink outside the family home. Losing your child to alcohol, is unquestionably the worst nightmare of any parent, but is sadly a reality for numerous parents across the world, as the amount of teenage deaths due to alcohol continues to increase.

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