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Drinking problems - should kids be allowed to drink at home?

Published 16/05/2008

What messages are UK parents sending out to their children about alcohol? In many homes, drinking is simply not discussed. In others, kids are occasionally permitted to try a sip of a parent's drink.

And some parents follow the European model, allowing their children to have a glass of diluted wine or beer with meals. The theory is that, when presented with a relaxed approach to alcohol, children are less likely to see it as ‘forbidden fruit', which takes the glamour out of excessive drinking as they mature.

This last approach seems to work well in France and Italy, where teenagers drink far less than their British counterparts, where moderate drinking typically accompanies a leisurely meal, and where culturally, drunkenness in people of all ages is frowned upon.

But the British attitude to drinking is far more complex - as is our nation's problem with underage drinking. Government research shows that more than half of underage drinkers get their supplies from home, while 11- to 14-year-olds are now drinking double the number of units they did in 1990. And according to Alcohol Concern, 1,000 children under the age of 15 are admitted to hospitals each year with acute alcohol poisoning.

In response, the UK government recently announced that parents could be prosecuted for allowing their children to try alcohol at home, as part of its crack-down on the widespread binge drinking culture. Currently, any child aged five or over is legally allowed to try alcohol at home under their parents' supervision -- but the government review will consider whether the legal age limit should be raised.

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that British parents must do more to guide and direct their children's first experiences with alcohol if they are to steer them clear of drink problems in later life.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case, says Sue Allchurch at Linwood Group. "Parents often shy away from talking about alcohol with their kids," she says. "Maybe that's because it forces them to confront their own drinking habits, which they don't want to do."

But children take their lead from the adults around them, she adds - so if a family member drinks a lot, or alcohol is a big feature of family occasions, they are more likely to follow in these footsteps. "There's plenty of evidence to show that drinking problems run in families, so it's vital to lead by example," she says.

At the same time, parents can do much to influence children in their attitude to alcohol in a positive way. Alcohol should not be demonized, but the mental and physical health risks should be explained in terms that children can understand. Kids should be taught that, while moderate drinking is acceptable, drinking ‘to get drunk' is not. And as kids get older and begin to pursue a social life outside of the home, parents should be monitoring where they are going, with whom and whether alcohol is involved.

"As a parent, part of your job should be to educate your children about alcohol and protect them from its dangers. That means examining your own drinking and considering whether your habits are ones that you'd want your kids to adopt. If that's difficult for you or your partner, it could be time to take action on your own drinking habits," says Sue Allchurch.

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