Underage drinking – sometimes a small change in how parents think or talk about or model drinking can make a big difference.
“If you’re going to drink, just don’t drive.”
“At least when I host the party and take away the keys, I know they’re safe.”
“Drinking at high school parties is a rite of passage for teens.”
You’ve likely heard these kinds of comments from parents — perhaps even said or thought them yourself — but the way teens interpret these messages may surprise you, namely, that it’s okay to drink (and in a teen’s world, that’s not sipping a glass of wine with dinner).
Navigating the middle school and high school years and what to say to your teen about drinking can be difficult. As parents, we want to do what’s best, and we want to trust our children will do as we say. But if our actions around drinking do not model our words, the mixed messages can be confusing for our kids. To keep it clear, parents may want to consider:
1. Not encouraging (or turning a blind eye to) underage drinking. There are scientific reasons for this. The brain is not fully developed until one’s early 20s, often not until 25, and is experiencing brain changes related to puberty, cerebral cortex development, and the pruning and strengthening process. Therefore, there could be long-term consequences such as a negative impact on the memory center of the brain. Check out A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain for more information.
2. Not drinking any amount if driving. Parents with their fully developed brains, may find they can consume a standard drink (standard drink sizes = 5 oz. of wine or 12 oz. of regular beer) with dinner at 6:00 and be okay to drive home at 9:00 p.m., but if their child is with them, their child may interpret the behavior as a message that it’s safe to drink and drive. Explain to your teen how the body processes alcohol (see #3), which is why drinking and driving has dangerous consequences. Check out this related post, as well, “National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month.”
3. Not having too much to drink in front of children. If a parent is going to drink in front of their children, it’s important to know and stay within moderate drinking limits. This sort of modeling sets the example, and equally important, it helps parents prevent secondhand drinking for children and others. How? Typically, if a person waits until they “feel it,” it’s too late. This is because alcohol is not digested like other foods or liquids — it is metabolized by the liver, which takes about one hour to metabolize (rid the body) of the alcohol in one standard drink. Drinking more than the liver can metabolize changes how the brain functions. Other considerations when it comes to parental drinking include knowing how many standard drinks are in a particular cocktail and how many standard drinks constitutes “normal” drinking. For this kind of information, visit NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking.
4. Not always celebrating with alcohol. When an event involves the kids, such as a family-oriented Super Bowl party, wedding, backyard barbeque or their sports award program, and alcohol is being consumed by the adults, it sends the message that drinking is an important part of celebrations. Consider throwing an alcohol-free event, instead, to show that one can have fun without alcohol.
5. Don’t leave it to the school to have the “drinking and drug talk.” Parents need to talk early and talk often with their kids. If the drug and alcohol issue is talked about at home like any other health issue — getting enough rest, wearing a bike helmet, using a seat belt — from elementary school on, your teen will be better informed about the consequences of teen drug and alcohol use – especially as they affect the brain and brain health.