Wednesday 26 July 2017

David Coleman: We're teaching our kids to binge drink by our own misuse

David Coleman
David Coleman
David Coleman

David Coleman

What counts as 'problem' teenage drinking? Is is teenagers getting drunk to the point of falling over? Is it teenagers becoming aggressive and violent while drunk? Is it teenagers getting pregnant or getting sexually transmitted infections because of not using condoms while drunk?

Perhaps we consider teenagers to be engaged in 'problem drinking' when they end up with really bad hangovers that lead them to be irritable, grumpy or unable to focus on a Monday morning?

In truth, all of these are problems that teenagers suffer because of their drinking. They are also problems that many adults face because of their own drinking.

In my view, we can't think about or try to deal with teenage 'problem drinking' unless we consider it as part of a whole society plan for dealing with alcohol use and abuse.

STREETS OF SHAME: Dublin is a shambles due to excessive and underage drinking
STREETS OF SHAME: Dublin is a shambles due to excessive and underage drinking

The facts about drinking are clear. One pub measure of spirits, half a pint of beer or one small glass of wine is a standard unit of alcohol. It takes the average person one hour to metabolise one unit of alcohol. Drinking six units of alcohol at one sitting counts as bingeing.

Accordingly, the vast majority of Irish adults are binge drinkers. Naturally, we are teaching our children to become binge drinkers too. It is inevitable, in our society, that children will grow up to think drinking to get drunk is normal. It is inevitable, in our society, for children when they become teenagers to want to experiment and use alcohol like they see the rest of society using it.

Our society doesn't just accept the use of alcohol - it celebrates it. Stories about wild nights and cruel hangovers become lore and legend in families, sports clubs, drama groups, music groups and every other social group we have. Every family or social celebration has alcohol use at its core.

The power of this role modelling, by adults, for children and teenagers is so strong that it matters little what we say to them about alcohol. Unless we are modelling the responsible and moderate use of alcohol for them, whatever we tell them about responsible use is meaningless.

Binge drinking is a real problem in Ireland
Binge drinking is a real problem in Ireland

Whenever there is a conflict between the message we give verbally and the message we give by our behaviour, it is the behavioural message that will always be more powerful and more persuasive.

When I give presentations and talks to the public, I often demonstrate this, having explained the concept of the power of our behavioural role-modelling, by getting the audience to wave their right hand in the air. I, too, will be waving my hand enthusiastically in the air. I then ask the crowd to touch their right hands to their nose. But while verbally saying "touch your hand to your nose", I demonstrate by touching my hand to my cheek.

About 80pc of the audience will automatically touch their cheek, not their nose, because they will follow my behaviour, not my verbal instruction. Our impulse to copy behaviour rather than follow direction is that powerful.

Applying the same principle to alcohol use then, it is a long, slow and frustrating road for a parent to be a sole voice urging abstinence, moderation or responsibility, when we are either doing the opposite ourselves, or the rest of the community that we are part of is doing the opposite.

Alcohol use and alcohol abuse is embedded in our culture. Teenagers are using alcohol for the same reasons adults use alcohol. They like the release from responsibility and inhibitions that it offers. They like the 'buzz' and the 'craic' that comes when alcohol lets other social pressures be released or removed.

That is not to say it isn't a good thing to have strong views about the benefits of abstinence and, later, moderation in drinking alcohol. Researchers have shown that teenagers who drink alcohol before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependency than those who start drinking alcohol after the age of 21.

Those same early drinkers are seven times more likely to be involved in a car accident involving alcohol. Parents do need to be clear about their views on alcohol and their expectations about their children's and teenager's use of alcohol. But to be fair to our children, we must align our views with our habits. Otherwise we give a mixed message to them and it is our habit that will be the more potent influence.

It is great for parents to promote the concept of avoiding alcohol altogether. It is good to remind our children from a young age that we have rules and expectations within our families about using or not using alcohol.

As part of justifying those rules, we need to understand how alcohol affects us, physically, emotionally and behaviourally. Only then can we give full and useful information to our children.

Once we become aware they are drinking we must switch from a message of abstinence to a message of safe and responsible drinking.

If we are concerned about teenagers' 'problem drinking' then we first need to address our own. If we don't misuse alcohol then neither will they.

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