The UK has good reason to be concerned about its drinking habits, particularly so as we are passing on these habits to our children. Teenagers in the UK are more likely to get drunk than their counterparts anywhere else in the industrial world, with levels more than double that of many other countries. Among girls, the gap between the UK and other countries is even wider. Aric Sigman writes in an attractive and compelling way about the extent of this problem and the need for an action by parents, educators, public health workers and Government.
He believes that adults need to adopt a more challenging approach towards young people, abandoning the permissive non-directive attitude that has characterized so much recent thinking about education and child rearing. He has pursued this controversial view elsewhere (Sigman, 2009). The focus here is on alcohol and the young, and the argument is well presented and in most cases well founded.
‘Without clear boundaries and clear figures of authority, not only do our children develop a sense of entitlement and self-centredness, they are also less happy, secure and socially viable’. He perceives a general retreat from the responsibilities of parenting in recent years and that the drinking habits of the young are one symptom of this. The media, advertising, peer groups and marketing by digital forms of communication fill the vacuum vacated by parents.
Each generation takes the cues from their parents and if their parents are drinking more it makes it easier for children to drink more also. Parents have more influence than many believe. The first challenge presented in the book is therefore for parents to look at their own drinking habits.
Alcohol has been exceptionally available in recent decades with low prices and ready access, particularly in supermarkets and other off-licenses. The nighttime economy has flourished, offering as it does a milieu for entertainment coupled with excessive drinking, which is often the only source of hospitality for young people at night. In contrast, he points out that relatively few parents dine together with their children and that this separation of adolescents from their parents' standards and expectations is particularly notable in the UK, which has the lowest report of children in all of Europe who eat regularly with their parents at table. He quotes evidence from the USA that the more often children eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink and use drugs.
He draws on neurophysiological evidence to highlight the importance of avoiding alcohol, or at least excess alcohol, in late adolescence when the brain is not fully developed. He states that the regions of brain important for judgment, critical thinking and memory are not fully mature until children are in their mid twenties. He points to the influence of alcohol in the shaping, in some cases literally, of the brain and its influence on the brain structure and function. He argues that females are often at a greater risk of all kinds of problems associated with drinking and at significantly lower levels than their male counterparts, and yet the gap between the amount drunk by boys and girls is narrowing steadily.
He describes many well-known physical and psychological effects of excessive drinking, particularly its impact on young people. Depression and binge drinking are closely related and he points out that it is wrong to think of alcohol as a solution to a depressed mood. More often it is a cause.
This book offers ‘a menu of information which can be shared by an adult with a child or even left to be read by an adolescent’. Much of what he writes is well known but he brings to the book an arresting and attractive style that will engage the understanding of thoughtful and interested parents, teachers, clinicians and adolescents. Some may claim that references are somewhat selective but the arguments he presents are compelling.