Tuesday 21 October 2014

How do we deal with teens drinking near our house?

Published 15/10/2012 | 17:00

We are a family who live in a nice area. It was fine when the children were young but now the toddlers have become teens.

Some of those delightful little boys and girls in the area are now the teens going to an open area behind the houses drinking. This is putting pressure on other boys and girls in their early teens to join in.

How do we as a family and a neighbourhood handle this?

Some of these parents may be blissfully unaware of their teenagers' behaviour

There are, as you recognise, two key areas within which you can tackle the issue. There is your own personal approach within your family and then there is the wider communal approach that you can take.

Within your family the important thing is to be clear about your own values and your own beliefs about what is good and bad about drinking alcohol. Your children, now teenagers, need to hear an unambiguous viewpoint, from you, about alcohol. It is not my place to preach to you about how you should view alcohol or what your values should be.

This is something that you need to be talking about with your husband or partner so that you can know what you each think. It is very important though that you can reach some shared message that you are both happy to give.

For example, there is little point in one parent holding a very firm abstinence policy while the other parent gives messages that "if you are going drinking just be 'copped on' and safe".

Mixed messages are harder for teenagers to deal with than single, really strict or really lenient, approaches.

Research shows that if we can get teenagers into their later teen years (age 16 and up) without drinking alcohol, they have a much lower likelihood of problem drinking behaviour later on in life.

Consequently, I believe it is imperative that we tell younger teenagers not to drink alcohol. Simply setting this as a rule is likely to be ineffective unless we have put the rule into some context for why we hold this view. So talk a lot with your children about drinking. Give them a rationale for why they shouldn't drink. Then, even if your children are exposed to other youngsters drinking, they will feel more empowered to choose not to drink when they have good reasons

This is not a guaranteed buffer against the peer pressure that may be there, but it will definitely help. It will also help if you are consistent in what you say and do. If your own drinking behaviour errs on the side of irresponsibility, then this will be a stronger influence than whatever you are saying about drinking. When there is a conflict between our words and our actions, in particular, children will take their lead from what we are doing not what we are saying. Your other point of entry to the issue of alcohol is with the other parents. You say that you live in a maturing residential area and it sounds like many of the families have been there a long time and so the chances are that you know each other quite well. If you already have a forum for meeting your neighbours to discuss issues of communal relevance, like a residents' group, or neighbourhood watch-type group then this is certainly a place where you can raise your concerns about some youngsters drinking in public.

If not, then just call a neighbourhood meeting, trying to ensure that all of the estate is aware of it.

If you feel that a neighbourhood meeting is not feasible, for whatever reason, then you might just want to approach those parents whose sons and daughters are seen regularly drinking down at the open area behind the houses. Some of these parents may be blissfully unaware of their teenagers' behaviour. Like with every issue, you are trying to identify where there is agreement and a sense of communal purpose. So, no more than you need to be clear about your own values about drinking and about teenage drinking, so too you need to discover are these values shared by any of your neighbours or the other parents.

It may be that you find that not everyone wants to try to stop the youngsters drinking. There are many adults who seem to have a soft, or ill-defined, approach to teen drinking, akin to saying "I'd rather they were drinking where I can keep an eye on them and know that they are safe".

This view certainly condones the principle that it is okay for teenagers to drink alcohol. So it will be important to canvass opinion to see if there is a majority view that the drinking near the estate is not okay.

This will then, hopefully, provide the impetus for the adults to take some ownership of the issue. The action you might take is to start regular patrols of concerned parents who will walk the open area making it less private as a drinking hangout.

While this may only shift the problem to another area, it will reclaim the area near the houses for the younger teenagers and other children.

You may also decide to create something very proactive and dynamic for the teenagers of the area. What kinds of youth services are available? Could you form a youth club, to give the teenagers a more positive focus for their time, to lessen their need to fill it (and themselves) with alcohol?

If there is energy to address the problem, communally, then you will find that many more potential actions will be suggested. Your goal is not to provide a solution to the other parents, but rather to motivate them to get involved and do something, if they too are concerned at the idle drinking that is creeping in and that threatens to influence a wider group of youngsters.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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