Underage Drinking – 5 Things Parents Should Consider To Keep the Message Clear

Underage Drinking - 5 Things Parents Should Consider To Keep the Message Clear

Underage Drinking – having celebratory family dinners and events without alcohol from time-to-time can send a powerful message to children and teens that alcohol is not necessary to having a good time.

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.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

17 Responses to Underage Drinking – 5 Things Parents Should Consider To Keep the Message Clear

  1. Hi Lisa,

    Great suggestions for parents of teens. December is a month of celebrations and a high risk month for first time drinkers and drug users, so perfect timing for the reminder. It is important to be extra vigilant during this time of year, and to role model appropriate drinking behaviors. Thanks as always for an important message.

  2. Lisa,

    This was a great article for parents. I think that when parents demystify the appeal of drinking under aged and talking with their child it really has a positive affect. Drinking is such a large part of the culture these days that it should be talked about openly and you are right, it should not be left to the school to address. It has more impact from the parents who are usually role models or authority figures.
    To comment on the points 2-4 I think you hit the nail right on the head. Its like any child, it comes down to the affect of “monkey see, monkey do”. If the children see the adult or role model figure drinking heavily and driving they are going to think that it is also okay to drink heavily and drive.

    As a side note, here is an info-graphic that you might be interested in about addiction.
    http://touchstonehealthpartners.org/2012/11/the-fact-and-fiction-of-addiction/ you are more than welcome to share it with your friends.

    Lisa you wrote a great article and I think that it will really resonate with people. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you so much! I appreciate your feedback and know it will help others, as well. And thank you for the link to your info-graphic. I’ll share in on BreakingTheCycles.com’s FB page, as well. Take care.

  3. Another great article that is so informative Lisa. I think it is vital that parents not only inform themselves of the impact of underage drinking on the individual but set the right example. Children are ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ And as you say a teenagers interpretation of an adult action can be very different to the intention.
    The age limit in the UK is 18 years, but 16 &17 year olds can drink in public with a meal if it is bought for them by an adult. I personally think that is madness because there is no limit to how many drinks may be consumed. In my opinion that is madness!

    • Oh my gosh – that’s total madness, Carolyn!! What’s been missing is the fact that you can’t “teach a teen brain” to drink. The teen brain is not the brain of an adult and thus handles alcohol differently than an adult’s brain. Wow! Thanks for sharing!

  4. BarbaraJPeters says:

    Thank you for sharing the great information for parents and teens. This is very valuable information. This a tough time of year with all of the festivities going on and many struggle.

    • You’re so right, Barbara – it’s so tough around the holidays as “everyone” (or at least that’s the perception) is often celebrating with a toast or a drink. Hopefully this information can help.

  5. Ruth Hegarty says:

    Lisa, this is terrific advice, especially in this holiday season. It’s so different today from when I was a kid when all the adults drank and nobody thought about it. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Some good ideas to share!

  7. Sharon O'Day says:

    I have not had to deal with this issue directly as I don’t have children. But I have watched my nieces and nephews grow up and have seen how they have interpreted their parents’ messages about alcohol. Fortunately they sorted the messages out responsibly. (BTW, celebrating without alcohol is one thing they all did; a terrific recommendation!) But I can certainly see how things could have gone wrong. Thanks, Lisa, for sharing this valuable list!

  8. Lisa–Another excellent post. I hope you are reaching tons and tons of parents of middle school and high school kids! They would certainly benefit from getting this info and I am not in touch with that age group very much.

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