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‘We’re not French’: Irish teens and alcohol – what exactly should they be allowed to do?

The dreaded drink is often one of biggest fears parents have for their children

From the mundane, everyday aspects of life to the fun and appealing ones. Knowing how much freedom to give our teens as they learn to navigate the world around them, with hormones and very different expectations in tow, is a challenge and a half for parents.

Our job, however, is to raise them to become independent of us. For that to happen, we need to equip them with the space and tools to do so. Loosening the reins when the fear is real is not easy. Nor is knowing quite how much those reins should be loosened.

The dreaded drink is often one of biggest fears parents have for their children. Will they consume too much? Will they end up in a dangerous situation or make poor decisions because of it? Yet, at the same time, there’s a degree of resignation, almost, that it will make up part of the teenage experience.

While 18 may be the legal age to drink, many parents choose to allow their children to either drink at a younger age at home or agree that a limited amount of alcohol may be consumed by their teens elsewhere in an attempt to demystify alcohol or limit their intake.


Mother of two, Denise allows her 15-year-old to drink a couple of cans at the weekend and on holidays. “I have always tried to be open and honest with both kids,” she says. “Both parents drink so trying not to be hypocritical and teach him to be responsible. My in-laws bought my hubby and his mates alcohol when he was 16, which – he explains – he drank at home so him and his friends were safe and his parents knew what they were drinking. I snuck out with friends and drank, unknown to my mum – or so I thought.

“I’m trying to teach him it’s not something to hide, to be open and honest with us about it, to be responsible about it and teach him to know his limitations. He had his transition year ball a few weeks ago. He met at a friend’s house before it, had a few drinks and all enjoyed themselves and had a great night. Other blokes weren’t allowed in [because] they were too drunk.”

Siobhan, who has three children, says she had different rules around alcohol for her eldest child than the ones she has now for her second child.

Her eldest was not allowed to drink at home until he was 18. She wanted to keep the idea of alcohol consumption away from the house for as long as possible because she had two younger children. She doesn’t believe, however, this means he wasn’t drinking on other occasions.

When it comes to her second child, who is now 16 and allowed the occasional drink at home, she says the “circumstances are totally different. He’s not the same and could be more easily influenced. So, better we knew than not.”

The family have also had a number of bereavements and she allowed her 16-year-old to “have one or two at the funerals”.

Mum of two, Helen, doesn’t allow her 16-year-old to drink any alcohol. “We think that if we act like we have zero tolerance it may keep him just having one or two. We feel that if we condone it, the drinking will increase,” she says. “We know we are fighting against the tide. These are the kids that didn’t even get a first year disco so they are catching up on life.

“He’s a good kid and we are glad he has friends and wants to go to parties, etc, but we’re just watching it like a hawk. Seemingly, the real worry ahead is drugs so, maybe, a beer or two won’t be the worst thing.”

The idea that facilitating teens drinking at home with have a positive impact on their drinking habits later is a myth, Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist, explains. “I know most parents give in well before the 18th birthday but we know, neurologically, that the brain is not developed enough to take on the intake of alcohol that Irish teenagers and young people do.”

Colman says ideally parents would hold out as long as possible. In addition to neurological health considerations, he adds: “The idea of allowing them to drink at home rather than drinking cans in a field or drinking beers instead of drinking shots, I’m not so sure there’s any evidence of that in terms of it creating good habits.”

“I think we have an idea of the French people on the Continent who can have two glasses of wine with their dinner. We don’t live on the Continent and we’re not French. O–.”