”Parental alcohol use is at its most unpleasant, when parents break their promises or fail to act according to what has been agreed. Parents are at their nicest when they are sober. It is fine for adults to consume some alcohol in festive occasions.”
This is the opinion of a Finnish adolescent. In the summer of 2011, Fragile Childhood of the A-Clinic Foundation carried out a survey for 12- to 18-year-olds in relation to adults’ alcohol use and the drinking culture in Finland. The survey included questions about the young peoples’ experiences concerning the harmful effects caused by their own parents’ drinking.
The results of the survey indicate that young people are in favor of a change in the drinking culture, wishing that adults followed responsible drinking habits focusing mainly on festive occasions. According to the survey, young people do not appreciate the Finnish intoxication-seeking drinking habits or the manners of speaking that idealize the idea of becoming intoxicated. The picture of the effects of alcohol provided by TV programs and commercials is not truthful in the opinion of the young.
Intoxication-seeking drinking has no place at home
The vast majority (82 %) of the 12- to 18-year-old survey takers approves of moderate alcohol use amongst adults. By contrast, intoxication-seeking drinking is not considered appropriate at home according to 80% of the survey takers. The worst aspects about their parents’ alcohol use in young peoples’ opinion are the fact that at times chores do not get done at home and that promises are broken. Parents are at their nicest when they are sober. However, the majority of young people, approximately nine out of ten, approve of their parents’ use of alcohol in festive occasions.
The message that comes across from the answers is that a parent’s alcohol use is no minor issue with regard to an adolescent’s well-being. A problem which came up repeatedly in open-ended responses was that parents did not understand the fact that the changes in their personality as a result of alcohol consumption may cause anxiety in the adolescent. Young people believe that there is a connection between the parents’ drinking behavior and the attitudes and drinking habits of the children once they reach adulthood. Provided that adults would drink in the responsible and controlled manner that the young people wish for, the effects could be solely positive.
Parents should offer their children guidance in responsible alcohol use
The subjects that parents talk about also play an important role: 84 per cent of the survey takers were of the opinion that parents should tell factual information about the effects of alcohol usage. However, at the same time young people expressed their doubts in the survey about whether or not adults have enough information about alcohol consumption and the consequences of intoxication. A considerably lower number of survey takers wished for their parents to talk about their own drinking experiences. Perhaps this depends on not wanting the parent to act too much like a friend when it comes to this issue.
In the speech of educators and professionals parallels are often drawn between letting children taste alcohol in a home environment and purchasing alcohol for minors. Young people do not experience this the same way, especially if having the possibility to taste alcohol is described as a good way to teach moderate alcohol use and purchasing is described as a manner to control the extent to which the adolescent consumes alcohol. Amongst young people, 46 per cent are at least somewhat of the opinion that one should be allowed to taste alcoholic beverages at home in order for the person to learn to use alcohol in the right manner. Instead only 14 per cent of the survey takers find it sensible to purchase alcoholic beverages to teenagers with the intention to supervise the drinking.
A quarter of young people are negatively affected
The most permissive views regarding adults’ alcohol use take place in relation to festive situations and moderate consumption of alcohol. Intoxication is not considered acceptable, and most do not regard alcohol use as an adult’s personal business, especially in the case that they have children. A significant proportion of the survey takers also mention that their parents’ drinking causes shame (29 %) and disgust (26 %). Positive effects are considerably rarer.
Harmful effects caused by adults’ substance use at home were experienced by 26 per cent of Finnish young people, out of which 2 per cent had been negatively affected often and 24 per cent sometimes.
The person who was mentioned as the instigator for the negative effects was clearly most often the father (in 78 % of the cases) and the second most common instigator was the mother (in 34% of the cases). Another fairly usual instigator was the partner of the mother. The drinking of an acquaintance of the parents in home environment had caused harmful effects to as much as 10 per cent of all the survey takers that had experienced disadvantages.
The most common disadvantages caused by parents’ drinking according to the survey included family arguments, anxiety and shame towards the parents. Girls experienced anxiety and fear towards a drinking parent more often than boys. Over a quarter of the survey takers who had experienced harmful effects had been obliged to hide their parents’ drinking, and almost as many had had to look after an intoxicated parent. Many had also had to make the decision not to invite friends over due to their parents’ drinking. With regard to the future, young people are concerned about how the consequences of their parents’ substance use affect their parents’ health and life expectancy. One in three children between the ages of 12 and 18 is afraid that their parent will end up in an accident.
Where do young people find help?
The most usual ways to ease the anxiety resulting from adults’ alcohol use include meeting friends, listening to music and, especially in the case of boys, surfing the Internet. In other words, the coping mechanisms amongst young people vary: some escape the drinking situations while others find comfort in their friends’ company, and for some it is important to be able to distract themselves from emotional stress, e.g., by listening to music.
An adult listener is most often found within the nuclear family. Despite any problems in the family, a parent’s ability to listen is a crucial protective factor in the adolescent’s development. However, a quarter of the young people that have experienced harmful effects have not wanted to speak about their feelings to any adult. The situation is especially difficult for those adolescents who do not have a person in their home environment with whom they feel they could discuss the issue. Keeping in mind these individuals, it is safe to say that support services are needed. It is important for professionals, such as teachers and youth workers, who are continuously in touch with young people, to have the basic knowledge on the effects of substance use in a home environment and to know how to support an adolescent living in a difficult home situation.
The most commonly mentioned factors that would facilitate the life of the young people who have been negatively affected by the alcohol use of adults were the following: having the fights and arguments end and being able to leave home when the situation becomes too stressful (30% of the girls, 8% of the boys and 20% of all the survey takers were of this opinion). Several young people hope for positive things, such as spending time and sharing hobbies with parents.
The present services provided to support young people with homes where alcohol abuse is usual leave room for improvement. For instance, the survey takers wrote that there is a need for places to go on the bad days. The place for receiving support, or a momentary escape, can also be found on the internet, where young people wish to have peer support services as well as professional adults. Young people consider it important to be able to talk to adults that are easy to reach. They describe their wishes regarding the desired services in a very professional manner. For example, one of the survey takers wrote that they would like services where one would not be stigmatized as “weak”.
The young hope for a change in the drinking culture
One part of the survey consisted of statements that measured young peoples’ attitudes towards the drinking culture in Finland. Two out of three adolescents agreed that so called “drunk stories” are treated with humor almost too often. Nearly the same proportion hoped not to see intoxicated people in public as much as they do. The majority also believed that becoming intoxicated is idealized in excess. Notably more than half of the young people had observed that refusing alcohol in Finland leads to having to explain the choice. This number can be considered very high, especially taking into account that most survey takers were underage. Only one fifth viewed the common Finnish attitude towards alcohol as sensible.
Another aspect of the survey dealt with the current issue regarding the ways in which young people view the visibility of alcohol in the media. Over half of the adolescents were of the opinion that a large amount of alcohol advertising can be observed in the media in Finland. Somewhat less than half of the young people reported that they also see alcohol advertising online. However, many young people seem to have the much needed ability to criticize the media. That is to say, a significant number of adolescents believe that TV programs and commercials do not provide a realistic picture of the effects of alcohol usage.
The perspective of the young is easily left aside
Young peoples’ wishes and thoughts tend to be in jeopardy of being left aside from public conversation, where the young are often observed as the involuntary object of various phenomena such as TV commercials or the intoxication-seeking drinking behavior in Finland. Young peoples’ opinions tend to be more progressive than their parents’. Therefore, bringing forward the opinions of the young could lead to new trends in the development of drinking culture.
Janne Takala and Minna Ilva work in the development unit of the A-Clinic Foundation in the Fragile Childhood activity.
Translation from Finnish: Laura Virrantola