Before we rush to condemn drunk teens, look at your own actions in relation to alcohol and celebrations, as like all of us, children are instinctively motivated to copy the behaviour of other people
The Junior Certificate exams results are released today. It will be a day of celebration for some and commiseration for others. Whatever their results, though, I imagine most students will be planning to be with their friends tonight.
It used to be the case that the results were out in the early morning, but now they are available in the late afternoon, possibly to delay the “celebrations” which usually involve alcohol. Indeed, pre-Covid, the Junior Cert results night was often considered one of the messiest nights of the year with 15- and 16-year-olds around the country falling around drunk in our towns and cities.
Most parents look on in horror, and newspaper reports often bemoan the state of our country’s youth and the near-delinquency that they demonstrate on this night each year. Of course, those that do get drunk will have chosen to drink, and so must take some responsibility for their ensuing behaviour. Yet, in my view, we can’t blame the drunkenness on teenagers alone.
I believe that teenagers in Ireland are merely responding to the culture relating to alcohol that pervades Irish society. Only a few weeks ago we extended the opening hours of pubs and nightclubs. Why? I’m not sure there was even a demand for extended opening hours but the clear message it sends is that access to alcohol is important.
There are almost no evening social gatherings in Ireland that are alcohol-free. It would be shocking to most of us if we got invited to dinner with friends and there was no alcohol on offer. Every major family life event, such as births (wetting the baby’s head), deaths and marriages will typically involve alcohol.
Major sporting events are not only surrounded by alcohol advertising but are often sponsored by alcohol brands. Alcohol is served in the stadia and children coming to big events see that buying alcohol is part of the occasion.
Visiting dignitaries are often brought out for a staged moment in a pub, so they can be pictured with a creamy pint. The Queen in her visit to Ireland was hosted at the Guinness Storehouse, cementing the brand as some core part of Irish heritage.
But the large scale cultural associations we may have with alcohol are not likely to be the biggest influencers of young teenagers when it comes to alcohol. It is more likely that their attitudes to alcohol have been primarily shaped by the attitudes of their parents and their immediate friends.
When I give talks to groups of parents I will often ask them to join in a small “experiment” with me. I ask them to copy a particular gesture that I make with my hand (the “okay” symbol with thumb and forefinger together). I then invite them to wave that hand in the air while I am demonstrating the same. Then I ask them to place their hand on their nose, but I am simultaneously demonstrating putting my hand on my cheek. The majority of the audience ignore the verbal instruction, and simply copy my action by putting their hand on their cheek too.
I use this “experiment” to show them how powerful other people’s actions are. We are instinctively motivated to copy the behaviour of other people and when there is a conflict between what someone is saying and what they are doing, we will generally do what they do, not what they say.
This instinctive response is critically important for parents when it comes to what we role model for our children. We will often say one thing and then do something different. Shouting at our kids not to raise their voices at us, for example. When it comes alcohol we also often give children a mixed message.
On the one hand, we tell them not to drink, we talk about the dangers of alcohol. We might warn them about the damage it does to developing brain cells. We may even caution them about the bad or dangerous choices they may make if they get drunk. On the other hand, we may also drink too much, get very drunk, suffer bad hangovers, drink to numb our feelings and make bad decisions when we are drunk.
Consequently, the values that we espouse, verbally, about alcohol won’t always match our own behaviour. Aside from the potential hypocrisy, our children are more likely to be swayed by our actions than by our words. Before we rush to condemn drunken teenagers tonight, we might take a long hard look at ourselves and our behaviour.
So, if you have a teenager celebrating tonight, and you want to minimise the likelihood that they will drink, do involve yourself in their plans. Find out where they plan to be and who they will be with. Arranging to drop off and then pick-up might usefully restrict them somewhat. Do remind them of your expectations of them and their behaviour and hopefully this will become a celebration night they remember for all the right reasons.