April 23, 2011

RP-4: A mentor's story -- Should we talk about alcohol consumption?

A RISING NUMBER of youngsters have started consuming alcohol or smoking in their teens or when they are in high school or in college. Alcohol consumption and smoking are now gradually becoming part of social behaviour and part of the urban lifestyle.

 “Alcohol consumption is not appropriate for young people. We should discourage them and advise them not to get into something like that. It will ruin their future. They should be focusing on more important things at this age.”

We hear this a lot.

The traditional approach to discussing alcohol consumption usually borders on the premise that it’s just not acceptable, it’s inappropriate for that age, it’s immoral or simply wrong or dangerous, and so we end up sounding preachy and talking down to young people.

There is a counter argument: “A lot of people, including adults, drink, and yet they are not alcoholics. So what’s wrong?”

So how do you discuss this with a young person without appearing to be patronising or condescending or judgmental? How do you ask a youngster to avoid alcohol when it seems to be socially acceptable and a part of lifestyle he or she aspires to? Should we as mentors even discuss alcohol consumption with the young people we work with?

Perhaps we need to draw a distinction between consumption and addiction. So when does alcohol consumption reach a stage that it needs intervention?

Alcoholism or alcohol abuse/addiction is compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcohol (despite its negative effects on the person’s health, relationships, and circumstances).

More and more parents and educators are now shifting the emphasis to awareness of the possible risks involved or consequences of alcohol addiction and substance abuse instead of ‘what’s right and wrong’. In a way, it allows a real conversation without a disapproving tag or tone, allowing youngsters to be more receptive and participate in a discussion and possibly then make an informed decision. In addition, educators also now help with information on ways to detect signs of addiction and options to seek help for rehabilitation if faced with such a predicament (referrals to social workers or counsellors, etc.).

Alcohol addiction could also result from not being able to cope with challenges in life. It could be a possible escape from current problems or an escape from present circumstances. This is probably why uncontrolled drinking is considered potential high-risk behaviour for youngsters from vulnerable or troubled or underprivileged backgrounds.


Last year, we came across a story from a mentor at a Reflective Practice Session*. For four or five months, Vikash had been mentoring James**, who lived in a slum community in Bangalore. James is about 15 years old and not too keen on academics although he goes to school. He has a keen interest in sports, particularly football.

Vikash shared with the group his concern about the fact that his mentee, at this age, was drinking almost every week along with his friends. Vikash felt it was as a result of peer pressure. Vikash also told the group that he had planned an intervention for his mentee. Vikash had access to alcohol-addiction support groups and intended to introduce James to one such group or create one.


After hearing Vikash’s story, his fellow mentors appreciated the fact that Vikash had noticed this aspect of his mentee’s behaviour and the fact that his mentee shared this with him meant there was a certain comfort level in discussing alcohol consumption. It’s also good, they said, that Vikash had thought about discussing this with his mentee further and had thought of possible options such as self-help groups or alcoholic support groups.

The group, however, cautioned him on moving too fast or pushing rehabilitation even before understanding the current situation and his mentee’s perspective on alcohol consumption or even seeking his approval for such an idea. Perhaps there is a need to inquire about external factors encouraging his drinking was there trouble at home? Or was it just a case of peer pressure?

The group suggested that, before discussing rehabilitation, perhaps awareness or a general open discussion was the immediate need at this stage to confirm if James really understood what alcohol addiction was. At this point we also did not know if James himself saw his alcohol consumption as a problem or knew of the consequences of uncontrolled drinking.

The group agreed that the topic should be introduced to James with care. Also, care should be taken about the tone used there should not be a disconnect or adverse effect on the mentor-mentee relationship. Such an intervention for rehabilitation (joining a self-help group) is a big step and would need James’s consent and even his family’s.

If James is not comfortable with a discussion on the negatives of alcohol consumption, then talking about rehabilitation will probably not be possible. Pushing such a conversation may create further distance between mentor and mentee or make James feel as if he were being judged.

Perhaps it’s better to let the conversation casually revolve around awareness of possible consequences and see if there is an expressed need for help or interest; only then should the intervention/rehabilitation options be discussed, and again, only if the youngster consents to  it. We may not be able to change young persons’ behaviour but we may be able to educate them and let them decide what they want for themselves.
  • Compiled by Jeeno P. Jacob, Programme Anchor — Dream Mentoring Programme | Dream A Dream

* Once a month, mentor meetings are organised by Dream A Dream. The session is a forum to discuss challenges and seek support and advice from fellow mentors, senior mentors, and Dream A Dream

** Name of mentee has been changed to protect her identity and maintain anonymity.

RP-3: A mentor's story -- When things go wrong

SOMETIMES things don’t go the way mentors expect them to. Many outcomes are beyond our control. And it’s hard to accept this because we tend to feel responsible for those outcomes. We ask ourselves: Did we do enough. Could we have done more?

Despite the best efforts of mentors, a mentee’s decisions may be contrary to what was advised or what one thought was in his or her best interest. And we end up trying to push things harder or jump in to the rescue, as parents do. It’s hard to let go and accept.

In other cases, circumstances may have influenced the mentee’s decision although he or she knows it may not be the best one.

Children who are rehabilitated and live in shelter homes or orphanages, or who come from troubled vulnerable backgrounds or households, face many challenges. Some run away if they are unable to cope with challenges or changes in life. The idea could be to escape from current problems or from present circumstances.

Last year, we came across this story related by a mentor at different Reflective Practice Sessions*.


Christine had been mentoring Sita** for about two years since she was in Std IX (high school). Sita had been rescued and brought to a shelter home at a very young age. She lived most of her childhood there. Her father had been looking after her younger siblings. Her parents were separated. Her mother had moved away and abandoned the children when they were very young. She has an elder sister who was married but she was not in touch with her.

Sita’s father died while she was in high school. Sita had been close to her father so his death affected her. Christine noticed that Sita, in conversations, seemed to dislike the mention of her mother. Sita had doubts or suspected that her mother was involved in the father’s death over some property dispute. She had mentioned several times that she hated her mother. Although she did not say it explicitly Sita seemed to suggest her mother was a sex worker and she did not approve of her.

For some time her younger sister lived with her at the orphanage. Later, when her mother took that sister away, Sita was unhappy.

Christine continued to meet Sita for several months and she seemed quite ambitious about her education and career in nursing. Sita did well at school and moved up to Std X.


One day, Christine learned that Sita had left the shelter home to visit her hometown and had not returned despite being away for weeks. The staff at the centre was concerned about a change in her and believed she did not want to continue school any more. They believed that she was being troubled by a boy in the neighbourhood, that he was harassing her.

Christine felt it was also not in Sita’s nature to skip school as she was a good student and quite ambitious about completing her Std X. Christine therefore tried to contact Sita through her mother and uncle. Sita had apparently decided to stay with her mother in her hometown.

When Christine spoke to Sita on the phone, she said she was unwell and had been in hospital for a week and so she had decided to stay with her mother for some time. There seemed to be a change in her attitude towards her mother. It seemed her mother had been visiting the shelter home over the last few months and had committed to taking care of Sita. Christine also felt there could possibly be a rift between Sita and the staff at the shelter home (there had been a change in staff at the shelter home).

Christine found it strange that Sita would now want to stay with the mother who had not visited her for many years; in fact Sita had always maintained that she didn’t like her. So Christine was concerned that this was an inappropriate decision for Sita and she began wondering if Sita had been manipulated by her mother.

In her telephone conversations, Sita told Christine that her mother had committed to take care of her and that there was no need to come back, that she could stay with her and join a school in the village.

By this time the shelter home staff had taken the episode quite badly and distanced themselves from Sita. They tried reasoning with her mother for a few months to persuade Sita’s mother to let Sita stay on till her exams were over, but to no avail.


A month later Christine and Sita agreed to meet for a function at her home to mark her father’s death anniversary. Christine, along with a Dream A Dream staff member met at her home and also met her mother and two siblings.

During Christine’s conversations with Sita’s mother, it seemed as though she wanted Sita and her little sister to return to the shelter home as she may not be able to support them. This seemed strange or contradictory to what Christine had heard from the shelter home. According to Sita’s mother, it was Sita who refused to go back to the shelter home and to her school. She said she was now trying to find some work to be able to enroll Sita in a school nearby, but she did not know of any school that they could afford.

In a separate conversation with Sita, Christine learnt that the reason she did not want to go back to the shelter home or to school was because there was a boy in the neighbourhood or near the school  who has troubling her. It seems there had been some verbal exchange or obscene comment or proposal to do with a love interest. Apparently conversations and gossip around the episode had spread at the shelter home and at her school and this had made things more difficult for her. She was afraid it would bring a bad name to her and her family.

Christine continued to talk to her about the episode and tried to offer some validation and also explained that such episodes are common in a girl’s life and perhaps one needs to confront them and move on.

Christine also tried to explain to Sita the merits of continuing at the shelter home and at school until her Std X exams are completed (cost of education, difficulty in transferring to other schools without collecting a TC or transfer certificate, and catching up on missed portions). However, Sita maintained that she would not come back. On asked if she wished to continue her schooling at a later stage, she seemed unsure or reluctant to talk about it. So Christine discussed other options in order to persuade her to continue her schooling in some form (for example, looking for a government school or an affordable private one near her home, so that she could still stay with her mother and siblings). Christine also discussed the aspect of collecting her TC from the earlier school and explained how some schools insist on this document in order to be admitted mid-year.

Sita mentioned that there were plans to move in with relatives who lived near Sarjapur. She said that her uncles and cousins had told her they could help get her into a school in their village. Her mother, however, was uncomfortable with the idea of sending her to live with her relatives. She said that her relatives had not been very supportive for many years and had isolated them or treated them badly. She also said it was not good to send a grown girl to a relative’s place.

Sita agreed to think about her options. Christine offered to help accompany her for any related work. Sita seemed sad and angry at different points during the conversations; sometimes she would just be staring at the floor.


A month went by. Sita had gone to visit her mother’s family in their hometown and she made inquiries about joining a school there. Several attempts to contact Sita failed. Christine kept following up with Sita’s uncle and learnt she planned to visit the shelter home in connection with some paperwork. The staff at the shelter home also informed Christine that Sita’s mother would need to meet the school authorities regarding the leave of absence or meet them (shelter home staff). Christine passed this information on to Sita’s mother and uncle.

Most of the time, when Christine attempted to contact Sita, her mother and uncle would say she was unavailable or out for some work. Christine found it increasingly frustrating not being able to speak to Sita directly.

A month later Christine eventually managed to speak to Sita and learnt that she had started working at a small factory nearby. Sita seemed quite content for a while and continued to remain in touch over the phone.

Not long afterwards, Christine learnt that Sita had quit her job over some disagreement with a fellow worker. She then seemed more inclined to continue her schooling and was trying to make some arrangements in this regard. Christine managed to meet her and discussed at length the situation and tried to offer some validation and support.

One day, out of the blue, Christine received a call from a distressed Sita saying she wanted to leave home. Christine started to worry and tried to make arrangements to meet her right away but Sita then changed her mind. She did not talk again about the episode. Christine also started thinking of referrals to other shelter homes if Sita needed a place to stay. But further attempts to speak to Sita have not been successful. Nor has Sita attempted to reach Christine.

Christine later learnt that Sita had left home to move in with her grandmother and plans to continue to live there.


After hearing Christine’s story, fellow mentors agreed that this was definitely a difficult series of incidents and situations. It must have been frustrating to not be able to help or speak to her mentee for long intervals. Most mentors agreed that despite the outcome, Christine had done the best she could as a mentor and appreciated her for constantly following up and checking up on Sita. They encouraged her to try to be positive and hopeful of a good outcome. They told her that, sometimes, we have to let go and accept the situation. Certain things are beyond one’s control.

The group agreed that Christine had done the right thing by discussing the possible options Sita had and offering to support her (schooling, career) whatever her decision.

In further discussions, there was a consensus that Sita was probably conflicted or confused and unable to take decisions as she constantly had multiple problems to deal with at a particular time and her circumstances were changing constantly. There were too many changes over a short period, too many for a 15-year-old to handle:

  • Choosing between a parent and siblings vs. staying on at the shelter home and continuing school.
  • Her suspicions about her mother’s intentions vs. the need for a mother’s affection or a ‘home’.
  • Continuing school vs. working to earn some money for her family and the need to protect her siblings and provide for them.
  • Dropping out of school and preserving her self-image vs. confronting the boy who troubled her or confronting her peers at the orphanage.
  • Sticking on for a few months at the job and earning some money vs. avoiding confrontation with co-workers.

Christine noticed there was a lack of desire in Sita to confront problems and try to overcome them. There was always a tendency to avoid confrontation and take the easy way out. This was really frustrating for Christine and made her angry sometimes as she always tried to help Sita with constructive suggestions. The group tried to reassure Christine that none of Sita’s actions were intended to make Christine frustrated or angry. This was probably Sita’s own approach to dealing with problems in her life and the only way she knew how to. What was positive was that, at each stage, Sita shared a connection with Christine and confided in her. However, yes, it was unfortunate that things did not work out and we couldn’t help her overcome these situations.

The group suggested that this was probably a result of the pressure of having to deal with multiple problems at the same time, causing chaos in Sita’s life. The group also tried to reassure Christine that perhaps it was best to give Sita some space and let her make up her mind. And when she needs help, just be there in whatever capacity she can. If Christine is unable to continue, then it’s okay to look for closure and move on.

As mentors you could have faced, or may face, similar situations. Situations that do not have perfect solutions. Situations where the mentee does something contrary to the preferred way of dealing with a problem, resulting in unexpected outcomes. We just have to learn from them and move on.

  • Compiled by Jeeno P. Jacob, Programme Anchor — Dream Mentoring Programme | Dream A Dream

* Once a month, mentor meetings are organised by Dream A Dream. The session is a forum to discuss challenges and seek support and advice from fellow mentors, senior mentors, and Dream A Dream

** Name of mentee has been changed to protect her identity and maintain anonymity.