It’s Not the Drink, it’s the Relationship!

Over many years I have asked many distressed young people: ‘what would make you happy?’ The common answer is ‘a happy family.’ Many of those troubled and often troubling young people dull the pain of unhappiness with alcohol.

Many adults do the same thing – they use alcohol to dilute their feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem, fears and insecurities. The alcohol gives them a high – a relief from the void of love within themselves and between themselves and others. It is in this sense that alcohol becomes a substitute for what is direly missing in their lives – love, a sense of belonging, a sense of mattering. It is then no wonder that a high percentage of adults (55 per cent) feel they can do nothing to stop young people from drinking and that even a higher percentage are unwilling to modify their drinking patterns even when it might be of assistance to young people. Rather than being outraged by these seemingly responsible responses, it is crucial that we understand what lies beneath. Parents and other adults never have the intention of blocking children’s and young people’s progress in life, but the reality is that unless adults examine their interior lives, they may just do that.

Many commentators insist that parents and other significant adults in young people’s lives need to show good example, self-discipline and civic responsibility. What these commentators miss is that those adults also use alcohol as a substitute, and until they find the real thing, it is extremely difficult to let go of what dulls the pain of a lack of belonging. The reality is that these adults need the help and support to reclaim their own sense of worth and to inhabit their own individuality. When you live in your own individuality, you do not need the comfort of alcohol. It is also vital to understand that the attempt to deprive the person of their substance substitute is misguided and is likely to lead to an escalation of the dependence on alcohol or the resorting to another substance substitute, for example – drugs, or food.  It is good to see as well that there is another type of addiction – process addictions. For instance, in the case of a woman who is addicted to caring for others, it is even harder to take her compulsive caring behaviours from her as it is to take a drink from somebody addicted to alcohol. In this case, the woman makes other people the substitute and all that she’s doing for others is what she needs to be doing for herself.

Irish teenagers are the fifth highest drinkers out of 35 European countries. It is certainly a major cause for concern that those teenagers who start drinking between the ages of 15 to 17 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependency than those who wait until they are 21, are seven times more likely to be in a car crash and eleven times more likely to suffer unintentional injuries. However, the tendency of all the studies on teenage drinking is either to focus on controlling the teenagers’ drinking or getting significant adults, particularly parents to look at their drinking patterns and adjust their drinking behaviour so that it does not reinforce that of the teenagers. Other proposals are about HSE advertising campaigns promoting mature attitudes to alcohol, parents talking to teenagers on the effects of alcohol and a demand to increase drink prices. Whilst these interventions many be of some help, I believe the focus needs to be on the sources of the symptom – most often relationships – the relationship within the family (e.g. parents, siblings, grandparents), the school (peers, teachers, school principal) and, more especially, the relationship within the teenager who is on the road to alcohol dependency. When the young person has not attained a good level of independence, then he will unconsciously create a dependence on something outside of himself – this can be a behaviour (e.g. success), another person (e.g. girlfriend), a substance ( e.g. alcohol), an illness (e.g. glandular fever). What he now needs is for his parents to evaluate to what degree has their parenting promoted a sense of belonging to family for self and a fostering of self-reliance and independence. Young people are not here to live the lives of their parents; they are here to live out their own unique existences. When they have the security of belonging to family, an inner belonging to self and the confidence to take charge of their own lives, they have no need to depend on substitutes to make themselves feel good. The tendency for health professional to concentrate on the symptoms rather than the sources of inner turmoil means that little progress will be made in reducing teenage (and, indeed, adult) alcohol over-drinking or dependence. In fact, the more focus that is put on the symptom, the more likely it is to increase.

Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.