As the CEO of the UK’s leading youth drug prevention charity, it wasn’t lost on me when my 7-year old started calling out “it’s gin o’clock” at 5pm every evening on a recent holiday. Of course, we never let her drink any gin, but it was reminder of just how embedded our drinking culture is.
For many people, alcohol makes celebrations that bit sweeter or takes the worst off a bad day. It can brighten up a Sunday lunch with friends or add a ‘je ne sais quoi’ to a romantic night in for two. It is often our go-to for whenever we want to change the mood.
I am not about to advocate prohibition – that ship has well and truly sailed. But we do need to think very differently about the role alcohol and other drugs play in our lives and how we best equip young people, so they are in a position to make positive, healthy decisions as they grow up.
I know from my own children that schools have a vital role to play in ensuring young people grow up with the skills and sense of self-worth they need to succeed in the world. That’s why I cautiously welcomed the Government making drug and alcohol education in schools mandatory from September 2020. But both myself and my charity feel this education doesn’t go nearly far enough, nor does it come with the training and support teachers need to deliver this change with the knowledge, confidence and compassion young people we’ve spoken to say is lacking.
But all roads lead back to the home and this is where the real revolution needs to come. Behaviours, routines and rituals of adults are picked up by children, leaving an indelible mark. So does our ability to speak openly and honestly with our children about alcohol and illicit drugs. And I mention illicit drugs because it’s important to remember that the two are linked and that part of the reason alcohol has the potential to be harmful is because people don’t often think of it as a drug.
So, what can we do to keep our young people safe?
First, take the time to listen to what your children think about your drinking habits. I know it feels uncomfortable, but I promise it’ll be worth it. Our children see, hear and understand far more than we think, or I suspect, hope they do. The Institute of Alcohol Studies recent report, Like Sugar for Adults, describes how young people pick up on even small behavioural changes, leaving them unsettled and anxious. These things affect different children in different ways. Some may think that seeing their parents sing ‘Reach’ at the top of their voices, using kitchen utensils as microphones (yes, that did happen. More than once) is just plain funny. Others might struggle to place that version of you. Either way, you’ll never know until you ask.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to have open and honest conversations with your children about alcohol and drugs as they grow up. By the age of 15, over half of all children have been offered illicit drugs, and far more would have been offered alcohol. As much as many of us want to pretend this isn’t the case, or that it doesn’t affect our own children, this denial is putting young people at greater risk. Start the conversations early – perhaps the final year of primary, as you’re starting to prep them for ‘big school’. Have talks regularly, don’t just have ‘the talk’ and think it’s done. Let your children lead the way – listen to their own experiences and understanding – and use this as the basis for conversation.
As they get older, use the real-life situations they are encountering as a springboard for discussion. If they are going to a party where alcohol and/or alcohol are likely to be available, then have they thought about their strategy? Do their mates ever get dangerously drunk, or use illicit drugs? Do they feel confident about what to do? Always take your cue from your children, let them dictate pace and how much they want to talk about. This isn’t an inquisition, you are aiming to create an open, honest and trust-based line of communication. Whatever you might be feeling on the inside (and, if you’re anything like me your stomach will be doing somersaults at this point) try and be calm, measured and constructive.
Reading this now, you might think these are going to be difficult conversations to have – and you may be right. But they are preferable to the risk of your child finding themselves in a difficult position and not feeling they can speak to anyone about it or ask for help.
As parents, we can’t ever eliminate all the risks young people are exposed to as they grow up. But we can be aware of the impact our attitudes and behaviour might have on them. We can also try and give them the space to have open and honest conversations about the challenges they are facing and how to respond in a situation when something goes wrong. By doing this, we are not just helping them build their understanding, but also the confidence they need to make healthy decisions as they grow up.
Written by Mentor UK’s CEO Boris Pomroy.