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Should we allow teens to drink under adult supervision?

Sherri Kuhn blogs at Old Tweener, where she writes about raising teenagers, the perils of a clean home, wistfulness over babies, and anything else that makes her laugh (or cry) in the years between changing diapers and wearing them. With...

Parents and experts have mixed opinions

Teens and alcohol can be a dangerous combination, but what if American parents are taking the wrong approach? If parents allowed their teens to drink under adult supervision at home, would they learn more responsible drinking behavior?
Teen drinking wine

In other countries, drinking laws are quite different than in America.

Although the legal drinking age in the U.S. is 21 years old, it would be foolish to assume that teens actually wait that long to try their first alcoholic drink. Many parents feel that it’s better for their teens to be exposed to alcohol in the safety of their own homes, under adult supervision. Whether staying under the radar and drinking in secret or out in the open in their own homes, teens begin developing their relationship with alcohol from the very first sip.

Developing responsible behavior?

Many of the parents who choose to let their teens — and sometimes their friends — drink at home feel that by supervising their teens in a safe environment, they are learning to be responsible about drinking. Dr. Richard Horowitz is a parenting coach, author of Family Centered Parenting: Your Guide for Growing Great Families and a father/stepfather to six former teenagers.

“Truly a dilemma for parents,” he says about the issue. “On one hand we want our teens to develop responsible attitudes toward alcohol consumption. By allowing your teen to drink on certain occasions it does de-mystify drinking and makes it less of a ‘forbidden fruit,’” he says. “However, the law is clear. The age for purchase and public consumption is 21 and we do want to teach respect for the law even if we don't totally agree with it,” he adds. Serving alcohol to your teen's friends or allowing alcohol to be served when your teen is hosting a party at your home opens the door for criminal and civil liability issues as well.

There are conflicting opinions among adults regarding underage drinking. An online survey conducted on behalf of Caron Treatment Centers — a non-profit provider of alcohol and drug addiction counseling — found that 63 percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 40 expressed concern about the availability of alcohol to teenagers. Surprisingly though, 41 percent felt that teens should learn to drink responsibly in high school instead of waiting until they were 21. Tammy Granger, corporate director of student assistance programs at Caron, says that teenagers are unable to ‘drink responsibly’ because their brains are simply not capable of making such decisions — especially when they are impaired.

Drinking: A rite of passage?

For many adults, teens and alcohol go hand-in-hand. Granger says, “There’s still a pervasive misconception that underage drinking is an acceptable rite of passage — when it’s actually extremely dangerous to the developing adolescent brain and can have deadly consequences.” Although many parents feel powerless to prevent underage drinking, teens are actually very influenced by the behavior modeled by their parents. Allowing them to drink at home in a party-type situation sends them the message that this is how you celebrate, unwind or forget about a bad day.

Tomanika Witherspoon, LMSW is a psychotherapist who has experience working with teens who have substance use issues. “I do not believe that allowing teens to drink under adult supervision would teach responsible drinking behavior,” she says. “Statistics reflect that teens who begin engaging in alcohol or substance use are at risk of becoming addicted to alcohol.” When teens begin abusing alcohol at an early age there is a negative impact on brain development. “Just because a parent allows their teen to drink under their supervision does not ensure that the teen will not drink alcohol with others outside of the home,” she adds.

Teen boys drinking beer

Parents speak out

We spoke with a few parents who feel that drinking alcohol at home is the first step to drinking responsibly. “I have an 11-year-old daughter and four stepchildren ranging [in age] from 15-21,” says Andes Hruby. “I have noticed all of the children whom I allow to experience and taste various types alcohol have the least interest in it. We have special-themed meals and I might match a wine or beer so they can taste it during a celebration or event.” She goes on to say that she wants to make sure her daughter knows the difference between the taste of alcohol and a drugged drink. “If she tastes anything strange in a drink it could be seriously drugged and the bitter taste of a gin and tonic is not the same as the bitter taste of a Rohypnol-tainted drink,” she adds.

Sharon F. Svitak, mother of two adult children, agrees that teens should learn to drink responsibly at home — before they move out on their own or attend college. “If they learn acceptable behavior and use of alcohol early in their lives they’re unlikely to find themselves in trouble with alcohol at a later time. If something is forbidden, then it becomes attractive just because it is not allowed,” she says. “If there is no excitement at taking a first drink because that was done early in their teens, at home among family, then it is no big deal.”

Not on my watch

Bev Adkins has quite a different feeling about teens being allowed to drink alcohol at home. “I personally would not let my children drink underage, but the boys still did, behind my back,” she says.

“On the other hand, my stepchildren's mother hosted parties for them and their underage friends and my stepson died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 18.” She feels that the earlier teens start drinking, the more likely they are to become alcoholics. Her husband Barry is now a speaker on the dangers of alcohol and teens, and wrote a book about his son’s death called Kevin’s Last Walk.

“While I don’t want to make alcohol seem like a big deal, I just don’t feel like my teenager should be drinking at all,” says Jill, mother of two teens. “If I allow it at home, it feels like I am saying, ‘Go party! Have fun! I will keep you safe!’ when in reality, they will also drink away from home.”

What can all parents do?

“My recommendation is open discussion about drinking at family meetings starting in the pre-teen years,” shares Dr. Horowitz. “After hearing ideas from the children and the parents offering their concerns, a set of guidelines for the family can be set that is consistent with the overall values of the family. In this context, drinking wine at holidays or special occasions during a family meal at home or with other close family members might be sanctioned.”

Ultimately you are responsible for teaching and modeling responsible behaviors to your teens — and what works for one family may not work for yours. Include your teens (and tweens) in an ongoing dialogue about alcohol at home, and help them make safe choices down the line.

More teens and alcohol

Should you lock alcohol away from teens?
Teen girls and binge drinking: A dangerous mix
How to deal: Teenage drinking

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