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Myself and the (woeful) subject – alcohol

Alcohol in youth work? / Bild Nr. 160069
Alcohol in youth work? | ©: Konstantin Gastmann - pixelio

This "essay" comes from Maik Riecken, composer and webmaster of who gave us his kind permission to use the text.

This article is written from a German point of view and is based on the German laws, which states that no youths under the age of 16 are allowed to drink alcohol. There are other laws in other countries regarding the sale of alcohol and consumption of alcohol by children and youths. Treatment help and support services such as a a hotline for problem drinkers and counseling programs also vary from country to country. You should therefore adapt this text to suit your own laws. However the main thing in this article is to discuss the position a youth leader should take if children or youths are suddenly confronted with alcohol in the group or on a camp. If the youth leaders do without alcohol at a camp, the subject will not pose a large problem on the camp and can easily be intercepted.

The subject "Alcohol" is a subject which usually crops up on a camp with youths over 14 years of age. How should we deal with this? How do the youth leaders behave? Should alcohol be taboo? Will the camp suffer because of alcohol? It is important that the youth leader takes a clear position as the camps can quickly “get out of order” if this subject is not kept under control.

A few well known sayings: Alcohol is a part of life – alcohol makes you more relaxed – you need alcohol to relax – man, was I totally drunk again – super party, eh? – Alcohol increases the level - Alcohol allows verbal creativity – Your true personality comes to light under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol in youth work? for the members of staff? – and the participants?

A clarification of my opinion

I am a person who easily makes it through the month with one six-pack. I am assisted by the fact that I do not tolerate much more (lack of practice).

I believe that alcohol is a large economic problem and a drug which is greatly underestimated in its effects. I am often bewildered by the strange arguments which crop up for the use of alcohol. One person claims to need it so that he can get to sleep better after a tiring day in camp, another might want to relax with others while the next person drinks a nice Scottish whisky as a treat and could theoretically do not without alcohol for a longer amount of time. However the people quoted would not take part in a two week camp under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES if there was NO alcohol and no alcohol could be brought along with them – ah ha...

I would never imply that they are addicted. I also like to drink an Irish beer and do not get drunk very often, but it has been know at some party or another and I do usually have a crate of beer at home (which often goes off). I do, however, think about the way it is taken for granted that consuming alcohol is normal, although it should be seen as a 100% drug. It can lead from physical addiction to death through alcohol poisoning. In my existence as a mini driver, I am often confronted with unfortunate people from whom alcohol has taken everything. It’s good that we are all far away from that, or are we?

Under 16 year old participants and alcohol

The German law is on our side once again: It is forbidden for us, as youth leaders, to allow the purchase or consumption of alcohol by under 16 year olds.

What should we do if alcohol becomes a problem in this age group on a camp? We all know about the “cola cans” in the travel bags and the bottles which keep popping up every now and again to be consumed when the evening closes in a small group ("I’ve only got a glass of cola!").

In my experience, overreacting does not help much in these cases. I would try to react very decisively and clearly. This means that I would collect in the "corpi delicti" (evidence) straight away without giving them a chance to get it back again (but please, please do not drink it yourself). Moreover I would give them unlimited amounts of stress, by fixing a discussion with the participants concerned and the trip leader (discussions are always stressful for participants). However you must be aware that in the discussion your own consumption of alcohol could be brought up for discussion by the participant.

I believe that the fear of being caught with alcohol is the reason for such extreme counteractions on camps. In this discussion I would talk about the clear consequences which will come about for the participants if they “re-offend”. These consequences (e.g. "curfew", especially at night or with a chaperone/special supervision etc.) MUST be enforced. The ultimate possible consequence would be to send the participant home at the cost of the parents. A lot must happen before it gets so far.

Problems with alcohol are often defeated at the source. You might want to make public filling stations and kiosk in the nearby area aware of the youth protection laws and even threaten to report them if they sell to under 16 year olds.

Over 16 year old participants and alcohol

Most young people are well informed when the subject is their own rights. As soon as the 15th year is at an end, the purchase and consumption of drinks in public with a lower level of alcohol is allowed (I believe that 21% vol. is the limit). However there is nothing to stop you building in a clause in your rules which prohibits participants from drinking alcohol.

I am always pulled one way and then the other. On the one hand, I know that alcohol represents a massive attraction for youths and that lots of "male rituals" are connected with this stuff. However I am against encouraging alcohol consumption in any form on my camp. I know that there are many sources at which alcohol can be found and that you have a lot of trouble with a general ban. I now tend towards a compromise, if I have a group in front of me who have reached 16 (and only then!). We sell a certain amount of beer to our participants (max. 2x 0.33l in an evening, but more likely 1x 0.33l). This beer may only be consumed within the group, after the official end of the program on an evening. I must say, we usually have really large camp sites and the “youth village” is usually in the middle of nowhere. The beer may not be transported out of the youth village area. Lots of problems with alcohol can at least be defused. I recommend that you do not start with the sale of alcohol on the first evening, but try to judge the participants for a while (no trust in advance...)

This proceeding is not equally well suitable for each camp, especially if there is lot of contact between „younger“ and „older“ participants. This can lead to feelings of jealousy from the younger ones. You always have to judge the individual situation...

If you do decide to enforce the general alcohol ban on your camp, remember the rule "opportunity makes the problem". You will need special supervision and you need to make the rules clear from the beginning. You should bring up the subject of your own alcohol consumption in your staff study group. In my opinion the staff role model character for youths is always underestimated.

Members of staff and alcohol

Members of staff are role models for youths and much more than we think. Certain things cannot happen under any circumstances. For me, a member of staff with a hangover running around the camp or leading a program point is one thing which should never happen.

The workers in Preetz have a very strict set of rules to follow which has developed over years. Alcohol may only be consumed when all participants are in their tents (or beds). We always have a co-worker thought of the day, the cosy part of the day starts after this. We only sell beer and sometimes other things (wine, whisky, rum etc.) at this time. We have made a pact with each other that we will not bring any other alcoholic drinks to the camp. This sounds expensive, hard and disciplined but works very well.

Now for the results:

  • The members of staff get out of their beds in the morning
  • The staff are be fully concentrated on the kids, even in the second week
  • The staff do not catch colds as often – a result of over tiredness
  • Only moderate drinking is allowed
  • The members of staff have money left over after the camp for a trip to an amusement park (for example).
  • The members of staff still have fun, the life in the camp during the day is more important.

Our argument for this rule is: Our main priority is to be there for the participants. This is much easier to achieve this without drinking through the nights (we have had those as well).

You cannot expect that all groups, will voluntarily subject themselves to these types of restrictions. The consumption of alcohol reaches a limit for me, when I notice it has some sort of effect on my dealing with the participants.

Certain primary rules should be binding for everyone:

  • No boozing binges when participants are present
  • No hangover will be nursed on the camp
  • At the beginning of the day, I am in a position to complete my tasks without any problem

However this should be taken for granted. By the way: If a colleague keeps drawing attention to himself with his consumption of alcohol and has not stuck to the agreed rules, I would not have any problem with removing him form the camp, in contrast to a group member.

Tip: If the youth leaders do without alcohol at a camp, the subject will not pose a large problem on the camp and can easily be intercepted.

Source: Supplied to with kind permission from Maik Riecken ( Translated into English by Praxis-Jugendarbeit. The text is based on German law but is bound to contain one or two tips on the correct way to deal with the subject. You should be aware of the youth protection laws in your own country. Any youth leaders who are unsure about how to handle the subject should seek advice. A clear position is very important.

On Maiks website you will find further themes, tips and ideas for youth work as well as an extensive list of links to collections of games, devotions, laws, camps, camping sites etc. (all in German language). If the above text has helped you in any way, Maik would be pleased to receive any (us too, of course).

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