Skip to content

Month: September 2009

Busting the myths of teen drinking

This week we learned some hard facts about teen drug and alcohol consumption when Western Australia released its figures for the Australian School Students Alcohol and Drug Survey. Teens, especially girls, are drinking alcohol at damaging levels.

More than a quarter of students aged 12-17 had drunk alcohol in the past week. More than a quarter of the boys aged 14-17 who had drunk in the past week had done so at dangerous levels: 7 or more drinks in a day.

The figure was even worse for the girls. Nearly a third of those aged 14-17 who had drunk in the last week had reached dangerous levels: 5 or more drinks in a day (the limit is lower because of physical differences).

The greatest binge drinkers? 17-year-old girls.

These figures are heartbreaking. To me, they tell a story of the pain teen girls are seeking an escape from, and the pressures they face to be sexy, grown-up, uninhibited. They have a false belief that drinking alcohol is empowering, when in fact it’s a train crash waiting to happen. Alcohol companies continue to push “alcopops”, and hotels offer mixed drinks aimed at young women, such as champagne and Red Bull.

But retailers may not be the greatest problem: almost half of the students who drank in the past week got the alcohol from their mother or father.

From my work in schools, I believe that these WA figures are a good picture of what is going on all around the country. Lucy, a 16-year-old student in NSW, told me how obsessed the girls in her year at school were about the alcohol they were going to drink at a party one weekend.

They all made bets on who was going to out-drink who, and who was going to get drunk enough to hook up with random people.

One girl was asking for advice on what drinks she could mix together to get herself “smashed” quicker, and another was bragging about her mum buying her alcohol to take to the party.

No doubt some of the parents who supply their children with alcohol are just plain negligent, but I’m betting many are parents who show great care and concern about other aspects of their children’s lives. They probably taught them to always buckle their seat belt, never talk to strangers and always wear their bike helmet. They probably worry about their kids’ safety getting to and from school, their marks and finding the right career. It just so happens that they also believe old (and dangerous) myths about teenagers and drinking. Some of the arguments I’ve heard:

They’re going to drink alcohol anyway. It’s safer if they do it at home where I can keep an eye on them.

Kids need to learn now how to handle their alcohol so they don’t get in trouble with it later on.

Alcohol isn’t as harmful as other drugs.

If I don’t let them drink, they might do something worse.

It is my great hope that if all parents understand the truth about under-age drinking, we will finally be free of these myths.

There is no such thing as safe teen drinking. It is never okay to supply under-age kids with alcohol or tolerate under-age drinking. And this is why:

Grow a brain. The brain keeps maturing until around 20 years of age. Less alcohol is needed to cause damage to a teenager’s brain than an adult’s, and the damage takes place much faster. The damage can permanently alter the brain. A teenage drinker is more likely to suffer falling marks at school. As an adult, she may be stuck with memory problems, learning difficulties, poor verbal skills, depression and a tendency to addiction.

Have no regrets. A teenager’s brain is also not yet fully developed for reasoning or thinking about consequences; it is far more finely tuned to respond to situations emotionally. Combine this with alcohol and you truly have a worrying cocktail. Many girls regret decisions they have made and embarrassing things they have done while under the influence.

Stay safe. Drinking makes teen girls feel invincible, but they are actually far more at risk when they are intoxicated. Their judgment is compromised; their reflexes are slowed; they are physically awkward. They are at greater risk of violent and sexual assaults. I am not blaming the victim: it is never her fault. But being drunk does make girls easier targets, as predators look for vulnerability.

Stay healthy. Drugs such as amphetamines and heroin are not the only threat to the health of our kids. Each year, more than 260 young Australians die from risky drinking behaviour. Binge drinking can lead to acute toxicity that at the best requires hospitalisation and at worse leads to death. Alcohol increases the risk of injuries from falls and road accidents, and in the long term increases the risk of stroke, breast cancer and liver disease.

Delay now, or pay the price later. There is no benefit in “teaching” kids how to handle their alcohol. In fact, research shows that when parents allow their children to drink at home, it normalises drinking and lowers the children’s inhibitions to drink. Studies also show that delaying a person’s introduction to alcohol lowers their risk of developing long-term problems with drinking.

As parents, we need to take responsibility for our kids’ drinking. A study conducted by St Peter’s Collegiate Girl’s School, in Adelaide, showed that girls actually want enforced curfews and they do not want parents to turn a blind eye to teen drinking. Teenagers crave boundaries and limits, because the pressure is then taken off them to make all the decisions.

So let’s set boundaries. Let’s set good examples.  Let’s talk with our teenage kids openly and honestly about alcohol. And offer them things to do on the weekend that are way more fun than getting wasted.

Learning like a girl

In my book, The Butterfly Effect, I include a chapter on girls and learning. I believe that once girls reach high school, parents can feel ill equipped to help their daughters learn, hence I was keen to pass on the words of wisdom I had gathered during my years of teaching – and learning – in schools.   

The ‘really big school’ can seem impersonal and overwhelming. The curriculum is more complex. There are new school subjects today that we couldn’t have even imagined when we were at school. Some of the information our teens are learning is outside our realm of experience. Yet teenagers spend only 15 per cent of their time at school, which means our support at home is still essential.

A simple starting point: get to know your daughter’s studying habits and ask yourself: how does she like to learn? When, how and with whom does she do her best learning? If you are unsure, ask her and ask her teachers. Find out what works and how you can make her learning environment at home even better. For more specific guidance on how to do this, I think Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, a respected parenting author, has a helpful way of looking at the role of a parent in a child’s education. She likens it to the role a good sports coach has in an athlete’s training:

From sports psychology, we know the best coaches focus on improving technique and skill . . . They make rewards reflect achievements; teach individuals to manage their own mistakes, learning and progress; and reduce anxiety by finding out what is causing it and addressing that directly.”

Rather than being overwhelmed by how to help your daughter learn school subjects you don’t entirely understand, you can use the idea of becoming her coach to break down your role into doable tasks: helping your daughter improve her techniques and skills; rewarding her achievements; allowing her to learn from her mistakes; giving her the freedom to manage her own learning; and offering her your loving support, so that she is not left feeling anxious.

One of the areas that seems to cause the most angst with parents is IT. Particularly if Mum and Dad are not confident users of technology.

I was interviewed for two interesting Sydney Morning Herald articles on this topic last week ( both were published today and were picked up nationally).

Too boring: girls miss the IT boat. Read full article at the link provided.

An extract: 

As new media technologies continue to intertwine into our everyday lives and careers, there are fears girls are being left behind, with many finding computer subjects boring or irrelevant.

A study of attitudes to technology and career skills conducted by the Victorian Government in 2001 showed that 36 per cent of girls, compared with 16 per cent of boys, found information and communication technologies boring.

Almost 10 years later, little has changed, believes the educator Dannielle Miller. She says she has picked up on an alarming trend during her work with girls in primary and high schools across Australia and New Zealand, dealing with things like self-esteem and body confidence.

Miller, the chief executive of Enlighten Education, a company she helped found to foster education and self-esteem among young girls, says a big proportion of future job opportunities will be involved in the IT field.

”Increasingly jobs will require high-order IT skills,” she says.

”If we have a generation of young women who have been excluded from that knowledge then there is going to be a stark gender divide which will be quite problematic.”

So Much Homework, so many distractions. Read full article at the link provided.

An extract:

PARENTS who peer over their teen’s shoulders during homework time may be alarmed by all the distractions that are taking place.

How can they concentrate amid the lure of MSN, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, the internet, music and a nearby mobile? Can this seemingly distracting environment actually be positive to their child’s learning? Can it offer them life skills to navigate today’s increasingly digital world?

”When I’m doing my homework I will have Facebook, MySpace and MSN open and I will flick through all the screens constantly,” says Caitlyn Wilcher, 17.

Wilcher is studying for the HSC at Blaxland High School, yet no matter how pressing her homework is, these screens are constantly open, she says.

”When the pressure is on I still leave everything up but don’t check it as frequently and stop talking so much on MSN. I tend to talk about the homework when it’s crunch time.”

Increasingly, homework done on the computer is becoming a social event. Dannielle Miller says parents need not be too concerned about these apparent distractions but rather should try to help young people navigate this environment.”

Love to hear more about how the girls you care for learn.

Media highlights thus far – “The Butterfly Effect”

This week has been filled with powerful conversations around teen girls and my book, The Butterfly Effect.  I thought I would share three of the more interesting  interviews with you.

Sunrise – Raising Teen Girls – 4/9/09: click on the image below to view the segment or go directly to the URL:


Podcast – Breakfast radio with Tony, Bec and Mikey – Vega: 2/9/09 (listen about 10 minutes in as they talk about birds for the first segement!)


Podcast – The Conversation Hour with Jon Faine, ABC Radio Melbourne – 31/8/09

“Jon Faine and his co-host, Dr Gael Jennings, took your calls today as they discussed the problems faced by girls in our society, and the problems faced by those trying to raise happy and healthy young women. Their guests were authors Melinda Tankard-Reist, who’s book is called ‘Getting real – Challenging the sexualisation of girls’, and is published by Spinifex Press, and Dannielle Miller, who’s book “The Butterfly Effect’, is published by Random House.”

Love for you to join in and comment on any of the points raised in the above!

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Skip to toolbar