Thursday 28 March 2013

Understanding boys.....and managing teenage drinking

We have started the Easter holidays with an incredibly tragic and moving Memorial Service for a 17-year-old boy who, seemingly at the peak of his glittering (top public) school career, chose to end his life.   It is a shocking event and impossible for any parent to comprehend, and it has been a stark reminder of how vulnerable, sensitive and misunderstood many teenage boys are.  Statistics (eg. On depression, exclusion, aggression, imprisonment, suicide) point time and again to boys being less able to tolerate the emotional fallout as a result of life’s challenges or disappointments than girls.  And so, in today’s pressurized world, any adult who spends time with teenage boys needs to be intuitive to the signs, because for teenage boys they are always there, but far from obvious to detect.
Today’s teenagers are under huge pressure to aim high at every stage, and yet a first class degree is no guarantee of a glittering career at the end of the string of annual exams.  Perhaps we have unwittingly raised our young with a sense of entitlement, high expectation and pushed them to far-reaching goals and greater achievement?  So on the one hand hopes are high, and on the other lies the risk of disappointment?   Whilst many young will be able to withstand life’s knocks and pressures, there are others whose life/family circumstances have not endowed them with the innate resilience necessary for today’s world.  
The male brain, as opposed to the female brain, finds processing emotion hard (being able to recognize, understand and rationalize HOW they are feeling) and furthermore their brain is also not structured to articulate feelings, so emotions often remain stuck inside and get intensified by further disappointments – so there is a physiological reason WHY boys don’t sit down and discuss their innermost fears/uncertainties/embarrassments…..
But their feelings leak out and in the case of teenage boys their behaviour is the cryptic clue.  Behaviour is how we communicate our underlying emotional needs (eg. Sulking to cover up anger, bravado to cover up fear, bright cheery smile to cover up sadness) but if there are other events in a boy’s life (changes affecting their security/home, risk of failure, unrealistic goals and expectations) then any extreme or out of character behaviour could be masking the underlying emotion (grief, hurt, fear or shame).  So before reacting to any “bad” behaviour, pause and ask yourself “is this normal teenage behaviour or do I need to ease off the gas?”
A way of coping with underlying emotional issues is to resort to certain “coping” strategies.  If we are stressed we may walk the dog, kick the cat or talk to a friend.  Other less good coping strategies are things like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and food, all of which work to numb emotional pain. Other self-harming/risky behaviours offer boys an exciting high, whilst also helping them to release emotionsAccording to statistics privileged children will either self-harm, pop pills or drink alcohol.   Whatever the strategy, the problem gets camouflaged and stuffed a little further under the carpet, waiting to explode.   
Alcohol is readily available in most homes and social drinking is part of growing up.  But when alcohol is being used in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, address the issue.  It is easy to fall into thinking “well teenagers just do drink a lot”.  They don’t have to.  We continue to voice our concerns to our children (but not lecture) about the amount of alcohol teenagers consider to be normal, whilst at the same time making sure that in our family we are walking the talk. If they see us drinking too much on most nights, that is what they consider acceptable.  Teenagers are imbibing subliminal messages from their parents all the time, so I am careful not to express my desperate need for alcohol at the end of a stressful day or extol the virtues of a night of over indulgence!   Somehow today’s teenagers have developed a worrying attitude towards alcohol, and it is not uncommon to hear how:  drinking is a pre-requisite to a good night out, there is no point in going out and not drinking, you have fun and it was funny seeing…x .. drunk or that everyone consumes vast quantities of alcohol so it is “normal”.      
The salient facts about alcohol are:
  • ·      The damage done to your brain by alcohol never repairs itself
  • ·      The teenage brain needs twice as much alcohol as an adult brain to achieve the desired effects
  • ·      The younger you start drinking, the more chance you have of addiction – proven
  • ·        Alcohol damages the bit of your brain responsible for memory, decisions, learning & rationality – it makes you stupid
  • ·       Alcohol affects impulse control, respecting authority and finding your brake pedal – it has a detrimental effect on behaviour

Tips for parents:
Ø  Keep an eye out for persistent out of character behaviour and ask for help if you are concerned
Ø  Avoid being demanding and eliciting a confrontational reaction: boys respond well to clear, straightforward instructions
Ø  Create an atmosphere of reassurance:  taking risks, experimentation and making mistakes are all part of growing up.  Avoid humiliation instead use mistakes to discuss and help the child to establish personal limits
Ø  Help your child to see the personal benefits to them of limiting their own alcohol intake through discussion of the personal consequences of drinking too much
Ø  Impose any boundaries you need to in a calm, assertive and non-confrontational way
Ø  Teenagers, like adults, have different levels of ability to cope with stress. Watch for tell-tale signs (use of negative coping strategies) that indicate that their stress levels are too high.

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