Wednesday 19 December 2018

David Coleman: 'It's time to talk about alcohol with our teens'

Have an open discussion with children about alcohol
Have an open discussion with children about alcohol
David Coleman

David Coleman

Talking to our teenagers about alcohol may be complicated, because of the complexity of our personal and societal relationships with alcohol.

When it comes to drinking, many parents adopt a "do as I say, not as I do" approach. We typically have clear stated values about alcohol, that broadly reflect the fact that we believe it can be dangerous, and is especially dangerous for teenagers. Yet, we will happily have a glass, or two (or more) of wine with a meal. We might sit down to watch the match with a beer, or two (or more). We might arrange family gatherings that will inevitably be lubricated by alcohol.

I think most parents are aware that we act as important role-models for our children. Children watch us and listen to us and use what they perceive in order to form their own values and beliefs. They learn not just from what we tell them, but also from our actions and our behaviour.

However we know, from research, that when there is a mismatch, or a conflict between what we say and what we do, other people will be much more strongly motivated to copy what we do, rather than follow what we say.

So what messages might our children and teenagers be picking up from our apparent double standards? Often it is the subtle messages. So, for example, when you take your first sip of wine at a family meal, and sigh appreciatively, you indicate how good the alcohol tastes. When you make a comment like, "it's been a long week, I so deserve this beer!" you indicate that alcohol is a good way to decompress or de-stress.

Often we think that our children don't really notice our drinking, especially if we are moderate, or even minimal, in our intake. Just because we aren't getting drunk in front of them, however, doesn't mean that they don't notice the subtleties of our slight tipsiness. Or, as exemplified above, they may be aware that we are drinking for a reason, to either switch off after a busy day, or as a reward for the effort we've been putting into work or family life.

We must, therefore, be consistent in the messages that we give verbally and by our own behaviour, if we really want our children to avoid alcohol in their teenage years.

For many of us, that will remain aspirational, rather than realised, when it comes to changing our own drinking habits.

Setting clear expectations for teenagers, that is balanced with warmth and a level of understanding that alcohol will provide challenges for them too, is the best way to approach the issue. We can garner more respect for a position of abstinence, when we live by the same rules.

Having open, two-way discussions, about alcohol really facilitates better understanding and wiser decision-making about alcohol by teenagers. Too often, when our teens raise the topic of alcohol we start banging our gong about the dangers of it, and we slip into lecture mode where we "talk at" them, rather than "talk with" them about drinking.

They will have their own views, their own understandings and their own experiences of alcohol and it is much better for us to be able to connect in with where they are at, than to be simply stuck with our own perspectives.

To be able, for example, to gain an understanding of the real pressure they may be under to conform to their peers' drinking attitudes, may be a more useful starting point in being able to guide and support them not to drink, than simply taking a theoretical or philosophical position about drinking, which is not connected to their real-life experiences.

So, even if the conversations are awkward (because of our own behaviour) or are complicated because of alcohol advertising, an Irish culture that glamourises and normalises drinking, as well as peer pressure on our teens, they deserve us to engage fully, and openly in those discussions.

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