David Coleman: 'I think we need to accept that teenage use and abuse of alcohol is often facilitated by parents'
I read recent reports about the “The Lancet” article that looked at adolescent health worldwide. Among other findings, that research identified that Ireland ranks near the top for adolescent binge drinking (one of the health risk factors that they were tracking). While this finding didn’t surprise me, it did frustrate me. We seem to have given up, or given in, on the issue of teenagers drinking alcohol. It is like we just accept that it’s another “rite of passage” to get drunk too young. We seem to forget the damage alcohol does to Irish society, how it rips families apart, destroys lives and costs millions in health and lost productivity.
As adults, we drink for pleasure, or to ease out the pressures of the day, or to gain some social “lubrication” to diminish our self-consciousness. We also drink when we want to forget, to opt out, or to not feel the pull of adult responsibility. No wonder it’s so attractive to our teenagers too. Why wouldn’t they want to experience any or all of these effects?
Abusing alcohol is a cultural and societal problem in Ireland, and we are simply setting up our teenagers to perpetuate those problems in their own generation. Problem drinking, binge drinking and drunkenness are more often celebrated in Irish culture than condemned. So many of us will have talked about “legendary” nights out with friends, that centred almost entirely on our alcohol consumption.
Occasionally, like on the night of the Junior Cert Results, or when reports like the one above come out, the media hones in on teenage alcohol use and the horrors and dangers it involves. But teenage drinking is not an occasional problem. It is an every day, or at least an every week, phenomenon for hoards of teenagers, starting as young as 13. Without diminishing the personal choices that those teenagers are making, I also think we need to accept that teenage use and abuse of alcohol is often facilitated by parents.
To my mind, the two biggest factors in teenage binge drinking are parental attitudes to alcohol and parenting behaviour. Most of us end up being hypocritical if we even manage to have conversations with our teens about alcohol use. We know we say one thing about using alcohol and then do something different. Our sons and daughters know that too. Our role-modelling is critical and when it comes to alcohol many parents (myself included) give poor example.
Beyond that, however, there is a cohort of parents who consciously allow their teenagers (and their teenager’s friends) to drink. They adopt a “I’d rather they were having a couple of cans where I can keep an eye on them” approach, legitimising underage drinking. A further cohort of parents just choose to turn a blind eye to youth drinking and don’t take care to find out where their teenagers are gone, don’t check with other parents and choose to absent themselves so they don’t have to say “no”. I have heard so many stories in my clinical practice about parental carelessness, deliberate or accidental, that facilitates teenagers to drink. But if we care about teenage binge drinking, we need to stand up for our convictions about alcohol and say “no” to our teenagers.
Choosing to regulate your teenage sons’ and daughters’ behaviour, about alcohol, seems to run counter-culturally in Ireland. It is easy to feel like a “lone voice” when you want to ring another parent to ensure they will be supervising a party, or when you insist on picking up at a disco, or from a friend’s house. But these are the kinds of parental actions that make it harder for teenagers to “get away” with drinking alcohol.
So, if we want to tackle the problem with teenage alcohol use and abuse, we need to start with ourselves. We need to show leadership and make better choices in our own alcohol use. We need to be more actively involved in monitoring and supervising our sons and daughters and so minimise their opportunities to drink. We need to address our cultural reliance on alcohol. If we can achieve that, our teenagers may grow up with a healthier relationship with alcohol in their adult lives.