Keeping teens safe when alcohol comes on the scene

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Alcohol is a part of most of our lives here in Australia. We drink to relax, to celebrate, to commiserate and to be social.

I wouldn't mind betting that alcohol has been part of most, if not all, the social gatherings you've attended this year. It's little wonder then that our kids often come to see alcohol as a normal part of their own social lives as they become old enough to organise social gatherings for themselves. Knowing how to handle the issue of alcohol and teenagers is difficult at the best of times, and I hear that the issue can feel even trickier to manage in households where one parent works away. I guess that's because it's an area where parents often disagree, and any area of parental disagreement will be harder to manage where one parent works FIFO.

Alcohol use among teenagers is a topic on which people often disagree. Ask around in your group of friends and you'll probably see what I mean. Some people are of the opinion that teenagers shouldn't drink at all, and so they take a 'zero tolerance' approach (thinking that this means their kids won't drink). Others think that "all teenagers drink and there's not much you can do about it" and so take a disinterested and hands-off approach, believing that nothing they do or say will make any difference. Others still seem to think that getting drunk regularly is some sort of 'rite of passage' associated with popular teenagers, and so actively encourage drinking by buying their kids booze to take to parties.

Obviously, managing the issue in a house with teenagers is going to be more difficult if you and your partner hold different opinions. If this is the case, you don't need to give up and do nothing. I'm not sure why, but I've noticed that adults do frequently give up on this issue. This seems to be true whether or not the family is a single-parent family, a family with a step-parent or a family with two parents. I guess this is because alcohol really is everywhere and it can feel like nothing we do will make any difference. This is understandable but in reality there is a lot of information available to help parents make decisions about alcohol and their teenagers. Fantastic information and resources by experts in the drug and alcohol field of are available online and I've listed some for you below.

You'll notice that the approach recommended by many health professionals is one based on the principle of 'harm minimisation'. This approach means that we accept that alcohol is part of our society and commit to educating our kids about the risks associated with its use, and how to stay safe if they do decide to drink. It's hoped that by giving kids enough quality information, they will make sensible decisions about drinking (or at the very least be less likely to come by harm because of alcohol).

I agree with this approach and think that it's important to talk to kids about the risks associated with drinking excessively, which include*:

  • violence (being the victim of, or becoming violent themselves)
  • risky sexual behaviour
  • sexual assault
  • injuries and accidents
  • money issues (for example, borrowing money from a friend when drunk)
  • friendship problems
  • getting into trouble with the law

It's also very important to talk with kids about ways in which they can minimise the risks associated with drinking alcohol. Examples are:

  • setting limits for yourself and sticking to them
  • starting the night with a non-alcoholic drink and remembering to have some more throughout the night
  • eating before and/or while you are drinking
  • choosing drinks with low-alcohol content (obviously you'll need to explain what this means)
  • avoiding drinking in rounds
  • making sure you know what to do in an emergency or unsafe situation.

For you parents, here are a few general tips:

  • Think about your own experiences of drinking as a teenager. What approach did your own parents take? What did you think about their approach then? How do you think your experiences have influenced your view now?
  • Educate yourself about alcohol use among teenagers. Did you know, for instance, that experts now think that any alcohol consumption under the age of 15 is problematic because of brain development issues?#
  • If you have a partner, have a discussion about your attitudes and opinions to teenage drinking. Don't worry if you don't agree. Be clear on the areas that you agree or disagree on. Having different opinions doesn't mean that you can't come up with a practical approach that suits your child and the situation.
  • Depending on the age of your teenager, you could choose to have a discussion with them about the difference of opinion between you and your partner, and get their feedback. It's best not to try to pretend you share an opinion if you don't. Teenagers know when you're being fake and tend not to take kindly to it! As a rule they would much prefer their parents to be honest about their views (even though they're highly likely to disagree with them!) Raising the difference of opinions can be a great way to build trust as well as start a difficult conversation. You could raise the issue casually, for example "your Dad and I have been discussing whether or not you should be allowed to take alcohol to the party on Saturday night and we don't agree".
  • If your household is a single parent one, you could raise the issue in a similar way "I'm in two minds about whether to let you have alcohol at your party" and initiate some discussion.
  • With older teenagers, look at the websites recommended below and have a discussion about the information.
  • Have a look at alcohol use in your family. In my opinion older teenagers have a right to know if there is alcoholism in their family history (because we know that this is a risk factor for problematic alcohol use.)
  • Set limits and have clear rules about alcohol use. Enforce consequences if agreed upon rules are broken. 

A word or two about FIFO families:

In my opinion, it's OK to have different rules according to whether the FIFO worker is home or not. This can sometimes be necessary on practical grounds anyway. For example, if there are younger children in the house it can be impossible to pick teenagers up from a party late at night. It's also impossible to assure your teenager that you'll be there for them any hour of the day or night if there is only one of you at home and there are other kids or commitments. Teenagers might not like this reality but most will be able to understand it. Given this, some households only allow teenagers to go to parties on the weekends that the FIFO worker is home. The success of this sort of arrangement would obviously depend on the roster. It's likely to work well if dad (or mum if she's the one who works away) is home every second weekend, and it's much less likely to work if the swings away are longer.

It's normal for teenagers to want to be more independent and more separate from their parents. This normal phase feels particularly challenging to the parent who works away,who sometimes think that their child has pulled back from them because they work away. The parent working away can come to feel totally out of the loop and believe they have no influence on their child's behaviour, especially around difficult topics like alcohol. Because this feels so horrible, many parents protect themselves by pulling back totally and becoming disinterested in what is happening in their children's lives (which of course increases any distance that was already there!)  Parents who work away may need to work harder at the relationship than in the past and look for new ways to stay in touch, but it can be done. Texting and using social media media like Facebook are great ways to keep up with what's going on. It's also important to keep in the loop by scheduling regular parenting conversations with your child's other parent (whether or not you are together).

As I often say, regularly weigh up the pros and cons of FIFO for your particular family situation and keep talking about the issues facing your family.

Additional resources:

# this information is from Paul Dillon's book, above.

* this information relates particularly to unsupervised teenage drinking and comes from the site www.alcohol.gov.au


To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.


Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website www.angiewillcocks.com.