The Dangerous Middle-Class Myth about Teaching Your Child 'Safe' Drinking

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Byline: Dr ARIC SIGMAN

DRINKING is something we enjoy and inevitably see as an integral part of adult life. Culturally, alcohol is in our blood -- and, for many, literally so. Now, it's increasingly making its way into our children's blood, too, and at alarmingly younger ages.

In England, 11 to 15-year-old children who drink alcohol consume an average of 14.5 units a week, according to a major survey for the NHS.

Meanwhile, the number of children being treated in hospital A&E departments because they have drunk too much has risen sharply (by 32 per cent in four years).

But as society wrings its hands over teenage 'binge drinking', we seem unaware that our approach -- if we can even call it that -- to children and alcohol generally has been completely at odds with what both medical research and common sense should have told us.

The problem is not confined to the 'sink estates', either. A major government study published last year cited young drinking as a particularly 'middle-class problem', with affluent, liberal families most likely to follow the 'Continental' practice of letting children have a small amount of alcohol.

The study found that 70 per cent of parents 'think it's safer to introduce their child to alcohol gradually, like they do in Europe'. Even doctors and nurses whom I know have been carried along with the assumption that the best way to prevent our children from drinking heavily and behaving badly as a result is to teach them to drink while they are young.

There is a fear, too, that forbidding our children to touch alcohol will invite a backlash, in that they will actually drink more as a result, and might be more likely to become alcoholic.

And so parents buy alcohol for their underage children's birthday parties, allow them to go to pubs when they are under age and serve them wine at the dinner table, thinking this will wean them on to alcohol in a controlled, responsible environment. (Incredibly, the legal age in the UK for drinking alcohol in the home is five.) The idea that you can cultivate 'sensible drinking' in children is encouraged by educational bodies that appear to be impartial, but are funded by the drinks industry, well-versed in the comfy speak of 'responsible' alcohol consumption.

But while these parents might have good intentions, they might also be wrong. In a study of 428 Dutch families in 2010, researchers found that the more teenagers were allowed to drink at home, the more they drank outside the home as well. The suggestion is that teenage drinking begets more drinking.

It is not being liberal, it's being strict about alcohol that will prevent your child from binge drinking or developing an alcohol problem.

For those who find it hard to believe, here, for instance, is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal Of Studies On Alcohol And Drugs: 'Authoritative parenting might help deter adolescents from heavy alcohol use, even when adolescents have friends who drink.' This has been confirmed on opposite sides of the world.

An Australian study is one of several to show that buying alcohol for underage teenagers to take to parties or allowing them to drink at home can increase the risk of problems with alcohol later in life.

Parents also underestimate the impact of their own drinking habits. One of the best things they can do to minimise alcohol-related problems in their adolescents is to expose them to healthy alcohol behaviour rather than drunkenness, a New Zealand study found.

BUT as well as raising the risk of later problems, drinking in adolescence could actually alter the structure and development of the teenage brain. As pathologists writing in the journal Alcohol put it: 'Alcohol during adolescence selectively alters immediate and long-term behaviour and neurochemistry.' The young brain is very malleable and changes quickly in response to new influences. …