Alcohol and young women: "But I just want my daughter to be popular"

I've written about this topic a number of times before (in fact, I've even highlighted the same story I'm about to tell) but over the past couple of weeks I've visited a number of schools where I've encountered some particularly powerful (and not particularly pleasant) groups of young women in a year level and I thought it may be a good idea to raise the issue again …

A number of years ago I had just finished my Parent Information Evening at an elite girls' school and was speaking to a few parents afterwards. Time was getting on and the teacher who was looking after me for the night was shepherding those remaining parents out of the hall and when nothing else worked, she turned the lights out ... As I was following them out of the room this teary-eyed mother approached me from the corner of the room where she had been waiting until everyone else had left and said, "You're going to think I'm the worst mum in the world …"

Now parents have started conversations off with me in many ways, but I'd never heard that one before and thoughts instantly went through my head about what this woman could have possibly done that was so bad. Maybe I needed the teacher, or even the school counsellor with me for this one. She went onto say something like this:

"I just want my daughter to be popular. I totally get what you're saying about delaying her alcohol use for as long as possible and I appreciate all the research around brain development that you showed us tonight, but if I try to stop my 15-year-old daughter drinking and going to parties, she is going to lose her place in her social group. I wasn't popular at school and certainly wasn't in with the 'in-crowd'. I was on the outer my entire school life and I wouldn't wish that on my daughter for the world. She is in the popular group at the moment and I don't want to take that away from her by limiting her social life. I just don't know what to do ..."

By this time we were sitting outside the school grounds on a bench and she was really upset. She had found herself in a situation that she had no idea how to deal with and felt totally lost and had nowhere to go for answers. As she said to me, she felt she couldn't talk to her friends about it because she knew how she sounded - i.e., being popular was more important than being safe, and from her perspective, there was really so much more to it than that. She believed that school counsellors and the like would see her as a bad mother and there simply wasn't anywhere else for her to go ... The one person she had discussed it with was her own mother and that had been a disaster as she just dismissed her completely and told her to "grow a backbone and be a parent"!

Let me start by saying that I totally get where this mum was coming from - every parent wants the best for their child and that includes being popular (or at the very least not to be unpopular). We all want kids to have a positive friendship group that supports them, peers who are there for them to play with when they are younger and to socialise with as they reach adolescence. No-one (and I mean no-one) wants their child to feel socially excluded and on the outer. Children and adolescents can be cruel and we all want to protect our kids from being bullied and tormented by their peers. We all remember the 'popular group' - that group at school that just appeared to have everything going for them. They were usually really good looking, did reasonably well (but not too well) as far as academic results were concerned, were more likely to play sport and represent the school in at least a couple of activities and, most importantly, were at the centre of any social activity that took place on the weekend! Who wouldn't want their son or daughter to be a part of that group? It sure beats being a part of a group that sits on their own in the playground, is never invited anywhere and are only spoken to when someone feels the need to insult them for how they look or for the clothes they are wearing … As I said, kids can be incredibly cruel and every parent wants to protect their child from that kind of abuse.

I was certainly never in the 'popular group'. I had a great group of friends in my final two years of high school who were wonderful - but we were hardly in the group that everyone wanted to join! Do I wish I had been more popular? Absolutely! I'm sure it would have made those difficult years so much easier and I hope my nephews and niece (whom I love dearly) are unbelievably popular, well-liked and have great friendship groups that are supportive, positive and treat others well. But would I condone or tolerate them drinking alcohol at the age of 15 to help ensure that popularity? Most probably not ....

As my sister-in-law regularly tells me - "You're not a parent, so it's easy for you to say this" - so let me start by saying I can't begin to imagine what it must be like for a parent to deal with this sort of issue, but this is the advice I gave to the mother that evening ...

Firstly, I asked her if she wanted her daughter to drink alcohol at 15 - did she feel comfortable with it? She replied that she didn't, in fact, quite the reverse. When she had provided her daughter with a couple of drinks to take to a party (something her daughter told her that all her friends' parents did) she was terrified the whole night. I then asked her what she thought of the girls her daughter was hanging out with? Had she met any of their parents and, if so, what did she think of them? This took her quite a time to answer and when she finally did it was obvious that she was not overly impressed with her daughter's friends. She was extremely careful with what she said but it was clear that she thought that they weren't particularly nice girls (to be honest, I don't think they were in fact the 'popular group', they were more likely the 'evil princess group'. Although these girls believe they're popular, they're usually just feared! They certainly are powerful but they don't lead in a positive way, instead it is all about judgment and intimidation - not nice at all!). She knew almost nothing about their parents as her daughter had made it abundantly clear that she must make no contact with them whatsoever - that would be social suicide! I can almost guarantee, however, that the mothers of her daughter's friends were in a similar group when they went to school. As I always say, what happens to the 'mean girls' when they leave school? They usually become those hideous mothers who try to be their daughter's best friend and make other parents feel guilty for imposing rules and boundaries around things like alcohol and parties! Once again, not nice at all!

Now I don't want to sound like I am psychoanalysing anyone here, but this seems to me as though this is more the mother's issue and her trying to deal with the pain she had experienced when she was an adolescent than anything else. She had obviously been bullied by the very same type of group of girls that her daughter was now a part of and now found herself in exactly the same situation again, this time being bullied by her own daughter. When I raised this as a possibility the floodgates opened and she sobbed - I had certainly struck a chord.

As much as popularity is a wonderful thing, it's most probably better to aim for not being unpopular!

During adolescence, peer groups have a growing influence on behaviour and having a group of friends who are supportive, positive and caring, as well as accepting of others is incredibly important - whether they're popular or not. Let's make something very clear here - so many of the so-called 'popular' students I have had contact with have all of these attributes and so much more (i.e., not all popular teens make the not-so-popular kids' lives a misery! Many of these young people I meet strive to be inclusive, accepting and use their popularity in a positive way). It is also important to acknowledge that many of the young people who are on the 'fringe' are totally okay with that, in fact, they couldn't think of anything worse than being involved with the 'in-crowd'. They're completely comfortable in their own skins and often thrive in those groups that just don't quite 'fit in'!

Do we want our kids to have wonderful and thriving social lives? Of course we do, but we also want them to survive this difficult period called adolescence. Although supplying or tolerating alcohol use at a young age in order to maintain their popularity or social standing within a peer group may seem like a good idea to some parents in the short-term, realistically, when you look at the evidence, it simply isn't worth it!

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