Minister of State, Roisin Shortall, suggested recently that parents who allow their teenage children to drink at home may be contributing to substance abuse among young people.
In an interview with Conor Pope of The Irish Times, the minister said that while parents might be well meaning in their attempts to encourage a positive approach to alcohol, she believed that they may be doing more harm than good.
She referred to the ”relatively new idea that if young people are drinking at home then it is okay, because at least they are not out taking drugs”. In her opinion, this is a view that needs to be challenged.
Roisin Shortall’s comments provoked a lot of debate on how we view alcohol and, in particular, the model of alcohol use that we promote for our children.
The argument for young people drinking at home is based on the understanding that, under the parents’ watchful eye, the children can be introduced to the concept of the convivial glass of wine with dinner or a beer or two at the summer barbecue.
Parents who adopt this approach are hoping that an example of sensible drinking at home will protect their children from the excesses of the forbidden fruit and dissuade them from taking to the fields or the backs of deserted buildings to get their first taste of ‘the hard stuff’.
This is a fairly weak argument and one that is often used in discussions about setting boundaries for teenagers’ behaviour — ”Ah, they’ll do it anyway, so it might as well be under their own roof in the safety of their own home”.
My experience of growing up and of witnessing my own children growing up has convinced me that providing a little of something desirable doesn’t deter a child from longing for just a little bit more.
We can see that from a child’s earliest years when ”just one square of chocolate” only serves to whet a youngster’s appetite for more of the delicious confection.
I discussed Roisin Shortall’s comments with my own sons who are both in their early 20s. My oldest son never really had the option of indulging in too much alcohol due to medication he was taking for epilepsy. He likes the odd drink, but could take it or leave it.
My 22-year-old son is a non-drinker. He took the pledge on the day of his confirmation and didn’t drink until he was 21 after which he decided that alcohol was not something that he particularly wanted or needed.
I often thought about what might have influenced him in this decision. Not drinking alcohol at all is almost counter-cultural in Ireland, especially among young adults.
My son believes that a big factor in his choice was related to the fact that he was influenced by his grandfather, a life-long pioneer.
Maybe the whole focus of the discussion is a little skewed — whether parents take a strict view on not allowing their teenagers to drink at home or whether a glass of wine with dinner is viewed as some sort of rite of approaching adulthood, the central message is still very focused on alcohol as a social necessity.
Stressing that a child can’t drink alcohol until he or she is 18 years old gives the impression that alcohol consumption is related to growing up and becoming an adult.
Making a big ceremony out of a child’s first drink at home also puts alcohol in a prime position. One mother of teenagers who I spoke to felt that drinking at home with parents would have little effect on future drinking patterns.
She questioned the wisdom of introducing a child to any mind-altering substances before they had a chance to complete their physical, emotional and spiritual development.
Research shows that key areas of the adolescent brain are still maturing and are sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol.
My own concern as a parent would be that even small amounts of alcohol can create an intoxicating effect producing a high which quickly becomes the aim of further alcohol consumption.
Promoting natural highs through sport, drama, music or any other activity which captures a child’s interest and imagination can assist in hindering early over-consumption of alcohol.
Whatever we say to our children about alcohol and how to enjoy it sensibly and safely, the true example comes from how we ourselves live this message.
If we’re concerned about our children’s drinking, we might examine our own habits before we point the finger of blame elsewhere. Rehabilition treatment centres for substance abuse have found that parents’ drinking habits influence their children’s choices; if parents drink heavily their children are more likely to do the same.
Adolescence is a critical time as children over 12 years old are more influenced by the drinking patterns of their parents.
Interestingly, if teenagers believe that their parents disapprove of alcohol or drug use, they are less likely to try them.
A belief in the importance of God and religion and active participation in religious practice are factors in a young person’s reduced risk.
Roisin Shortall rightly recognised in her strategy to tackle alcohol abuse that whatever changes are put in place, there’s no substitute for parental involvement in their children’s lives and ongoing care, supervision and, dare I say, discipline and boundaries.
Parents have more influence than they might imagine in steering children away from the potential problems of alcohol abuse so endemic in our Irish culture.