Teens and alcohol
Underage drinking is against the law and can lead to dangerous behavior and tragedy. Yet many parents are not only aware that their kids drink, they allow it.
Why do parents permit their children to break the law and put themselves in harm's way? To keep them safe, they say.
"I want them to call me if they've been drinking."
Jackie is very open with her kids when it comes to drinking. "I never supply it for them, but I know they drink," says the mom of three teenage boys. "I'm not stupid! I was a kid once, too, and I just want honesty from them."
Sounds permissive, but Jackie has her reasons: if she can't prevent her boys from drinking, she can at least keep them safe. Her biggest fear? Drinking and driving. If the kids find they don't have a safe way home after drinking, Jackie wants them to call. "I don't want them to be afraid that if they call us they'll get into trouble."
Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism in Raising Teens and Tweens, understands Jackie's logic. "I actually find it a clever idea, and there's a certain safety I can appreciate."
Dr. Duffy wants parents to be more available to talking with their teens about all facets of the issue: bingeing, alcoholism, drinking and driving and so on. "Open communication is far more effective in helping teens make smart, safe choices. That is not to say your teen won't drink, but your voice will more likely be in her head when she's making tough decisions late at night."
Underage drinking is illegal
Licensed psychologist Dr. Connie Stapleton specializes in alcohol addiction and takes a hard stand on the issue of underage drinking. "Tell your children that it is illegal to drink alcohol until they are of age, and refuse to contribute to their breaking the law," advises Dr. Stapleton. "Teach kids it's great to live life and have fun without the use of mood-altering chemicals!"
"The law says 21. I say 21," agrees Scott, a father of four. "Kids aren't mature enough to drink – sometimes not even when they're 21."
Ellen Pober Rittberg, author of 35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You So I Will, reminds parents that they're responsible for following society's laws and for teaching children to do the same. "Exposing a child to alcohol when the child is below the legal drinking age is basically saying that society's rules don't apply to them, and that is a bad message to give a child."
But telling your child he can't drink because he's not 21 is unrealistic, says mom Carol. Parents who think they're kids won't drink because it's forbidden are not being honest with themselves. "I had great parents," Carol says, "but I still drank."
"Controlled" underage drinking is harmful
Beyond the legal issues are the mental health concerns. The teenage brain is at the highest risk for lifelong addiction, says Dr. Joseph Shrand, instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and medical director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered). "Introducing kids to alcohol sends the wrong – and dangerous – message that controlled drinking is safe. There is no safe exposure to alcohol for the adolescent brain!"
Micah Robbins, executive director of DFYIT (Drug Free Youth in Town) agrees and adds these frightening statistics:
- Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug by teenagers, consumed more frequently than all other illicit drugs combined
- Nearly 65 percent of underage drinkers obtain alcohol from friends or family
- Underage drinking can cause permanent brain damage
You can't stop them, but you can inform them
Nancy B. Irwin, doctor of clinical psychology, encourages parents to talk frankly with kids about alcohol and "give them all pertinent information, answer any of their questions, and tell them that you trust them to make the responsible choices for themselves."
Do you allow your teen to consume alcohol?
Read more about teens and alcohol:
- Should you lock alcohol away from teens?
- Is your teen drinking?
- The hidden epidemic of very young alcoholics