12 May 2016

Nathan Mikaere-Wallis on teenage drinking

From Nine To Noon, 11:24 am on 12 May 2016

School ball season is just around the corner, and this week several organised after-ball parties have been cancelled. How can parents teach their children to be responsible around alcohol?

Woman on bed with bottle in hand

Photo: 123RF

Nathan Mikaere Wallis talks with Lynn Freeman about teenagers and drinking:

Read an edited snapshot of their conversation

What is the impact of alcohol on the teenage brain?

Nathan Mikaere Wallis: That’s really bad news, unfortunately. In the last 10, 15 years – especially in the last 10 – we’ve learnt that it has way more of an impact than we previously thought. Before brain scans – 10 years ago - we thought your brain, your actual skull, doesn’t grow after the age of 10 to 12. We thought the brain was fully grown by about 12.

We thought adolescence was just psychological changes. But it’s only with MRI scans we’ve been able to see (in the last 10 years) that it’s biological and physiological. We don’t have an adult brain at 12 - it’s closer to mid-20s before we have an adult brain. While alcohol is not very damaging to an adult brain at all, it turns out to be really damaging to a teenage brain so it’s causing lots of concern.

The binge drinking culture that we have in New Zealand – adults and teenagers alike – that must be even more damaging to brain development.

Nathan Mikaere Wallis: Absolutely, because the normal amount of drinking in New Zealand would be considered alcoholic drinking in other parts of the world. When you’re asked in Europe what’s the socially acceptable number of drinks you can have in one evening, the average number comes back in the research as being three. I always think three drinks is enough to dance and do karaoke, so what is the fourth drink for?

If you ask in New Zealand how many drinks are considered acceptable… the number comes back as 13, on average. So that binge drinking culture does expose us to way more danger.

In an ideal world we would try and keep teens alcohol-free, but that’s not going to happen. So is it best for parents to negotiate with their teenager a safe amount of alcohol for them to drink and a safe way of drinking alcohol?

Nathan Mikaere Wallis: That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. I’ve had five teenagers now - I’ve talked one of them into not drinking until they’re 18. With the other ones… a harm minimisation approach seems to work best. There’s a whole lot more risks when they sneak out than when they do it under negotiation…

That’s where the really dangerous stuff happens. In lots of ways things remain relatively tame until one in the morning because old people like you and I are out until [then]. The really dangerous stuff starts after that. If they’ve snuck out they do jump right into the deep end of that. You’re also not negotiating how much they’re drinking or what rate they’re drinking when they’re doing it all behind your back.

Some people will have more tolerance – the male/ female difference, the weight difference. What’s right for one young person is not going to be right for the next young person. It’s a little bit of a guessing game, isn’t it, at the start?

Nathan Mikaere Wallis: It is, although it doesn’t have to be that confusing. It’s really just        weight – the huge one parents have to think about. Probably weight is the only one that has to impact on their decision making.

A question from Julie: "Our 16 year old asks why can’t she have wine when we do, at dinner? Do you have an opinion on how or whether we should include our 16 year old children in our meal-linked habit?”

It’s a question I get asked a bit. Let’s go straight to the research – the research tells us that the earlier you have alcohol with your child, the more likely they are to have a drug and alcohol issue. The common New Zealand thing that that parent might be thinking ‘If I have alcohol with the child at dinner time we’re being like they are in France’ so we’re modelling good attitudes towards alcohol’ but the reality is we’re not in France and they don’t binge-drink in France. When they give children alcohol in France they water it down, they have lemonade and sherry. You’re not at risk in France like you are in New Zealand.

In New Zealand the earlier you have alcohol with your child, you’re validating the use of alcohol. So those children who’ve had a wine with mum and dad, they’re more likely to abuse alcohol outside of the home. I would consistently be saying ‘I understand that teenagers are going to drink because it’s part of the culture. I would rather you didn’t because of the damage it’s doing to your brain. It’s not something I would encourage. Certainly I’m not going to give you wine with your meal because you’ve got a teenage brain and wine is poison to your brain’.

It’s not poison to my brain – as an adult – so I’ve got no problems being what they might think is a hypocrite and having a glass of wine myself and saying no to the 16 year old. Because the reality is when you’re over 21 alcohol doesn’t really do damage to your brain. Under 21, certainly 18, it really is doing damage, it really is a poison.         

Nathan Mikaere Wallis is the founder of X Factor Education in Christchurch. He was formerly with the Brain Wave Trust and has been a lecturer at the Christchurch College of Education, lecturing in human development, brain development, language and communication and risk and resilience.