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Teens pumped up on high-octane activities don't need to get drunk

MOST Irish teenagers drink. Any parent who kids themselves that because they have laid down the law and believes that their child wouldn't lie to them, and won't drink because they are told not to, is not living in reality. Most adults drink, and what 'monkey see, monkey do'. So you can't expect as adults to go to bars and drink wine at home and say this is what adults do, but you're not an adult, so don't do it. In teenagers' heads, they don't believe they are just children. They may not wish to take on the responsibilities of adults, but they cherish their teenage status.

More to the point, they are Irish teenagers, which allows the question to be raised as to why they seem to have a much bigger problem with alcohol than, say, German teenagers or French teenagers.

Well, of course some Continental youngsters drink too, but not to the extent that our kids do. There is a much more laidback attitude to alcohol on the Continent and so there aren't really that many rules to break and not as much to rebel against by drinking your head off.

But the most important difference is that in most other European countries there is much more for young people to do. Their climates and terrain give them hot beaches half the year with surfing and just hanging on the beach. In winter they have the Alps where they can ski and snowboard, activities that take up days and weeks of high-octane fun. Schools in France actually take their pupils skiing for weeks in the winter. They do their lessons in the morning and then ski for the rest of the day. Location-wise, the nearest ski resort is only a few hours' away, and many drive up most weekends on top of that. Many have motorbikes by the age of 16 just to get around and, dare I say it, as in principle I'm anti-war, they have compulsory military service. Yep, they get to play war games, shoot big guns and blow stuff up all by the age of 18. That can quell a lot of demons in your average teenager.

When I was 15, I was a runaway on heroin in London. Now this is way more extreme then kids living at home and binge drinking. My step-mom and my father arranged that I leave London where I was squatting, and in a mess, and to go skiing in France for Christmas. I went, and after a week of morning to noon skiing, I learnt quickly and was good at it. The week of waking early, and the excitement and danger of attempting red and black runs, skiing down a whole mountain, doing high speed jumps, the adrenalin pumping like something I'd never known, the beauty of the landscape and the physical exhaustion by the end of each day had me tired yet exhilarated, and calm and secure in my own skin.

Sure, I went to the local bars at night but barely wanted to touch alcohol – maybe just a gin fizz – and the thought of taking my daily shot of heroin never crossed my mind. Why would I want to pour a chemical into my blood to dull me when I was so naturally high, so pumped up? The heroin rush seemed boring compared to the high-speed thrill of risk-skiing down a mountain, with some runs taking four hours to complete.

When the week was over, I stayed behind and got a job there for the season. Each day was thrilling and high-octane fun. I flushed my last secret little packet of heroin down the toilet, and never went near it again. I'd learnt a natural and far more exciting way to live. And it was living, not humdrum day-to-day existing. I know my story is extreme, but the general principle is applicable to any kind of substance abuse, including binge drinking.

Recreational sports that take up your day at your own pace and are at one with nature are very different psychologically then, say, a few hours' training for competitive football, where only the best get to play and it's all slog and very controlled. And not every youngster can be good at football or hurling or rugby.

So if you are not a natural athlete, what can you do in Ireland? Well, if you live in the West, you have some of the best surfing conditions in the world. Or you could try hiking, we have the landscape, or bicycling, or horse riding. Or what about swimming or even scuba diving?

But we don't actually encourage youngsters to explore these other options. So they get divided into two groups – those who play organised games and those who don't. And those who don't get into drink and drugs, and even the sporty types abuse drink too – celebrating a win or getting over a loss. With the non-sport girls and boys, they drink for want of something else to do as much as to cope with the very up and down life that being a teenager entails – exams, romances, peer pressure, the whole damn lot.

Yes, the Continental kids drink too, just not in the way we do. You don't hear of them waking up in the ditch with little memory of the night before. Maybe we put our teenagers under too much pressure. In Finland, for example, all schools are free, no one goes to school until they are seven, there are no entrance exams, no uniforms, and dividing up kids based on their ability is not permitted. There is over an hour of recess every day and no more then 30 minutes' homework a day at any level, yet Finland has one of the highest academic achievement figures in Europe. So school and learning become fun and interesting and not high-pressure tedium. And I guess the Finnish kids and teens get to do much more fun things after school, like skiing, snowboarding, speed ice-skating.

Okay, we don't have the geography for these kinds of activities, but we have plenty of other strengths we could play to. We just have to get serious about it, get organised, rather than just leaving the kids to their own devices, assuming they will find harmless and worthwhile ways to get through the long summers and to cope with the winter.

And if we could take a little of the pressure off them at the same time, maybe drink and drugs wouldn't seem such obvious and attractive pastimes.

Irish Independent