independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Liz O’Donnell: Lumley's words of warning a wake-up call for parents of teenage drinkers

Actress Joanna Lumley playing the hard-drinking Patsy in the BBC comedy 'Absolutely Fabulous'

"Don't be sick in the gutter . . . in a silly dress with no money to get a taxi home, because someone will take advantage of you. Either they'll rape you, or they'll knock you on the head, or they'll rob you. Don't look like trash, don't get drunk, don't be sick down your front, and don't break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight. This is bad."

IN AN interview with the 'Daily Telegraph' last week, actress Joanna Lumley of 'Absolutely Fabulous' fame gave that robust advice to young women. For her sins, she was excoriated and accused of snobbery and blaming young women for inviting rape. In fairness, coming from Patsy Stone, the notorious boozer she plays in 'Ab Fab', such admonition might seem a bit rich, but the actress makes a valid point. In her defence, Lumley claims she meant it to be "kindly" advice. I believe her and will not shoot the messenger.

Anyone who has had cause to be in Dublin city centre or urban villages around the capital and elsewhere on weekend nights will have witnessed scenes involving young women exactly as described by Lumley.

Few of us grown-ups are plaster saints when it comes to getting drunk; Irish culture has normalised heavy drinking, traditionally by men. But as the recent RTE2 TV programme 'Merlot And Me' revealed, Irish women are increasingly boozing way above our physical capacity and at levels which are downright dangerous.

So our daughters have not grown up with great role models in this regard. Nevertheless, however much on the back foot we find ourselves, we have a responsibility to warn young girls about the dangers of binge drinking and the reckless behaviour, including underage sexual activity, that it promotes.

Even self-proclaimed liberals like me are queasy about the early sexualisation of girls – the padded bras and micro mini-skirted 12 and 13-year-olds frequently to be seen tottering around suburban teenage discos looking like gangs of street walkers.

Most are not drunk, but the sight of them makes one wonder about what is going on with these girls and the junk culture they appear to be acting out.

Why are so many young girls angry to the point of needing therapy? How does one explain the growing incidence of eating disorders, teenage suicide and self-mutilation? Why do so many young girls bully others and claim to hate their loving parents?

Could it be that life has become harder, not easier, for girls despite greater equality?

In theory, young women should enjoy a confident life without limits, given protective equality legislation and increased participation in education and career opportunities.

But it's amazing how many girls can combine weekend binge drinking and the rest with high educational performance.

Adolescence has always been traumatic for boys and girls, and we all recall our own tantrums and misdemeanours. But youngsters these days navigate a very complex world. Girls are coming of age in a much more sexualised and media-saturated culture. The celebrity-obsessed TV and magazines which inform so much of their lives and conversation compete with the demands of school work.

Most teenage girls are on social media sites such as Facebook, often without adult oversight. Many parents are frustrated and unable to challenge the tyranny of their children when it comes to their access to cyberspace.

Judging by the clamour of mothers phoning radio programmes to share stories of teenage cyber abuse, self-harm and even suicide ideation of their children, parents are desperately seeking some direction.

They struggle to help their children experience the pain and pathology of adolescence. Where social media is concerned the research is relatively new, but all the signs are that cyber-bullying and addiction are real problems for teenagers.

In her bestselling book, 'Reviving Ophelia . . . Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls', which predates social media, American psychologist Dr Mary Pipher chronicles case studies and offers suggestions to parents on strategies to revive the lost "sense of self", which can be so common in adolescent girls.

In the 1960s, Betty Friedan had called this emotional and behavioural malaise "the problem with no name".

WHEN it comes to boys, and young men in particular, there is widespread dismay, but there are at last moves for effective action to deal with chronic rates of youth suicide on both sides of the Border.

How can we best protect the emotional and mental health of our young people without unduly compromising their need for independence and autonomy? More access to empathy, counselling and mental health services is vital.

But the inconvenient truth is that most Irish teenagers are seasoned drinkers before they reach their 18th birthday.

There is no denying a strong link between alcohol and the act of suicide. To make a real dent in those suicide rates, zero tolerance of under-age drinking is required by all of us.

Irish Independent

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