Why lax parents are really to blame for teenage boozing

Parents probably wrung their hands at the news that drunk teenagers who turn up at Dublin 4’s legendary disco at Old Wesley Rugby Club are looked after in an on-site medical room.

From Independent.ie

The event’s organiser, Donie Bolger, emphasised this week that the first aid room has always been there, and mostly deals with blistered heels from stilettos, asthma sufferers who have forgotten inhalers and the odd bump or bruise.

Bolger says: “In around 8pc or 9pc of cases it is kids who have turned up drunk and are not admitted to the disco but are brought to the medical room until their parents come and bring them safely home.”

The fact that the organisers of the no-alcohol disco for young teenagers have to take such measures may be portrayed as a grotesque manifestation of the alcohol culture on Dublin‘s southside. But in truth the scenario could be replicated in every town and city across the country.

Old Wesley enforces a strict no-alcohol policy, but it is a fact of life that kids get tanked up as part of their social life everywhere in Ireland and have done so for a long time.

By third year in every secondary school there is a significant cohort of pupils who drink regularly, and they are now more likely to be girls. At the emergency department of Cork University Hospital, the majority of teenagers being treated after drunken escapades are female.

Typically classes in school split evenly between the boozers and the non-drinkers. Social life may revolve around those who drink and those who don’t.

The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) shows 52pc of 15- to 16-year-old Irish girls drink every month, and 48pc of boys.

Dr Bobby Smyth, a Dublin child and adolescent psychiatrist who specialises in addiction, says: “The average age of onset of alcohol use in Ireland has dropped by two or three years in a generation. Children commonly start drinking at 14 or 15.

“The problem is that early use of alcohol has a negative impact on brain development.”

ESPAD reports the number of drinks consumed at a typical session in different countries amounts to nearly seven units of alcohol among Irish teenagers, compared with a European average of five.

Parents may tut-tut as they read stories of 15-year-olds knocking back vodka out of plastic bottles and puking their guts out on the street, but how much of this is influenced by their own behaviour?

“There is a cohort of parents, often well-educated, who take a liberal attitude to drinking,” says Dr Smyth, who is a member of the board of Alcohol Action Ireland.

“They seem to think that it is a good idea to introduce young teenagers to drink, and that this is somehow the sophisticated way of doing things in Southern European countries.

“That is a gross misunderstanding of the cultures of those countries.”

Dr Smyth said in countries such as Greece it is simply not acceptable to be seen drunk.

“Sadly in adult-life Ireland, it is considered normal to be drunk and that message is passed to teenagers. There comes a point for many Irish teenagers, and it could be as young as 12 to 14, when they lose the ability to enjoy themselves without drink.”

The problem seemed to reach its peak during the Celtic Tiger years, when our overall alcohol consumption soared. According to Dr Smyth, drinking among young people has actually declined in recent years, but from a very high base. Those who drink heavily tend to be the most precocious kids.

“They are desperate to do everything first and prone to rushing into adulthood. Most adolescents can judge how to pace themselves. But up to one-third of them always want to push the boundaries,” he added.

So how can parents stop their kids falling into bad company and drinking before the disco?

“Ideally as a parent you should be there to drop them and pick them up,” says Dr Smyth. “Or you should have absolute trust in the parents who are bringing them.

“The problem is that kids are smart. If they want to drink they won’t want to get ready at the house of a family that has appropriate attitude to drink.

“They will try to go to a house were the parents are indifferent, and turn a blind eye. They are more likely to get away with it.”

Suddenly the seemingly angelic 15-year-old has downed half a bottle of vodka and is having her stomach pumped. It is not just parents who should be blamed for a free and easy attitude to underage drinking, according to the National Youth Council of Ireland. According to the council’s Get ’em Young report of 2009, children and young people aged between 12 and 17 are particularly attracted to drink advertising.

The elements that appealed to them in drink ads are those featuring humour, sports personalities, animals, brights colours, and clubbing.

James Doorley, assistant director of the Youth Council, says: “The impression is given that in order to be cool you have to drink.”

Another problem is that drink is much more widely available to young teenagers, and easier to buy.

According to the ESPAD survey, over one-quarter had bought alcohol from an off-licence in the previous 30 days; 30 years ago, there were fewer supermarkets and off-licences selling drink. Because they risked losing their licences, publicans were reluctant to serve underage drinkers.

“Now you can get drink anywhere and those who are selling it may pay less attention to a teenager’s age,” says Mr Doorley.

Teenage drinking continues to be at crisis levels, but it will only be addressed if we tackle our deeply-ingrained national addiction problem in adult life.