Middle-class parents contributing to teen addictions by 'handing over bottles of vodka', warns top therapist

Parents are all too willing to ‘turn a blind eye’ and are often too naive to pick up on substance abuse, claims Mandy Saligari

Mandy Saligari
Mandy Saligari

Middle class parents are contributing towards their children’s drink and drug addictions by handing over bottles of expensive wine and vodka, a top addiction therapist has claimed.

Increasing numbers of teenagers are seeking help for their addictions, but parents are all too often turning a blind eye, according to Mandy Saligari, founder of the Charter rehab clinic in Harley Street, London.

“Parents of people I’ve treated have given them bottles of vodka to go to a party with, aged 15... I think it’s deeply irresponsible,” she said in an interview with The Independent.

“The idea is, the parent gives the child a decent bottle of spirits or wine so that they don’t end up drinking ‘rubbish’. That’s just naive, because the child will drink both.”

Ms Saligari, who works in around 200 schools and also appears on Channel 5’s In Therapy series, said nearly two-thirds of her clients were aged 16 to 21 – a “significant rise” on a decade ago.

Many were even younger, however, with children as young as 13 coming in for treatment to deal with a range of addictions.

The middle classes were particularly susceptible to adopting long-term health problems relating to addiction, she said, because the early indications were “hidden in plain view”.

“They appear to have everything,” said Ms Saligari, “educated parents, nice homes, comfortable backgrounds and good schools… they’ve got prospects in the world and yet there is this pattern of abusing drugs and alcohol.

“I genuinely mean it when I say I am aghast sometimes at the naivety of some parents: ‘It’s not my child, it’s everyone else’s child... I turn a blind eye because I don’t know what to do if my child has a problem.’”

Middle-class parents were typically unable to spot or smell cannabis, despite the “vast majority” of 15- and 16-year-olds having had “some experience” of the drug, she added.

They are also often unwilling to seek help for their children because of the stigma surrounding addiction, or “fear of being thought of as a failure”.

“I think parents are frightened to hand their ‘most treasured possessions’ – a term they actually use to refer to their children – over to somebody else. Someone who they think is going to mess with their mind behind closed doors, and that’s terrifying.

“I don’t think parents are to blame but I think that they are responsible. We always say to parents, you didn’t cause it, can’t control it, you cannot cure it – but you have contributed to it.”

Ms Saligari’s comments come as new research is published to suggest pupils from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to end up with drug and alcohol addictions later in life.

The long-term study undertaken by academics from Arizona State University found girls from private schools in particular were as much as three times more likely to develop such problems as an adult than their less affluent peers.

“I think it starts as a result of stress,” said Ms Saligari, whose rehab clinic specialises in family and group therapy. “Their families worked very hard and continue to work hard to maintain these high standards of living.

“Parents might be working all the hours in the day, their stress levels are very high and they want their children to supersede them,” she added.

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“So there’s this enormous pressure, there’s an expectation and there is a kind of ‘we’ve done all this for you so why wouldn’t you achieve?’.”

In cases where teenagers already recognise in themselves a problem with addiction, they were put off asking their parents for help, and in many cases took it upon themselves to find a therapist, so their parents did not feel let down.

“Probably in every school I go to I will hear a teenager saying, ‘I couldn’t tell my parents’ or ‘I don’t want to tell my parents because I don’t want to worry them’,” she added.

“So you have the parents working really hard, trying to provide all the opportunities for the child so that the child can succeed, but the child is experiencing so much pressure that they don’t want to let the parent down, to tell them that they’re struggling. It’s such a negative circuit.”

Previous studies – including separate research undertaken on behalf of Public Health England and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing – have labelled harmful drinking as a middle-aged, middle-class phenomenon.

As a result, they are passing on a bad example to their children, Ms Saligari said.

“You have a parent coming through the door from the school run, or the end of a busy working week. They walk through the door and go straight to open a bottle of wine.

“That person will not call themselves an alcoholic. However, they are definitely showing their children that if you feel stressed, this is what you do.”

In order to change these behaviour patterns, parents should learn to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with teenagers, rather than “bending over them”.

“What I would recommend strongly is to have a truthful relationship with your child, so you’re able to trust them to adjust the littler things and you are on hand to adjust the bigger things.”

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