Underage Drinking – When Adults Send Mixed Messages

Underage drinking – impacts of alcohol on the developing brain – most important reason for considering alternative messages about teen drinking.

Underage Drinking – what happens when adults send mixed messages? Are there alternative messages that may better keep teens safe?

Below you will find some of the messages I repeatedly hear adults send when it comes to underage drinking. These are followed by the way teens often interpret the message.

While the intent is clear – parents / adults just want to keep kids safe – the way a teen hears the message can have an adverse result. To help adults with some of these very important conversations, I’ve provided some information for each scenario that adults may wish to consider using.  These are not written in a format  you might share with a teen, but rather to help you gather more information before you have the discussion with a teen (and, know – it’s never too late to change your prior decisions on these topics).

Drinking and Driving (or Accepting Rides)

Adult: If you’re going to drink, don’t drive – call me. Please – no questions asked – just call me.
Teen:  It’s okay to drink as long as I don’t drive.
Alternative message:

You know that your safety comes first and foremost, so of course, I want you to call me if you have been drinking or are with friends who have been drinking and I’ll come and pick you up. But – and this is where it gets tricky and what I really need you to understand – it’s often too late for you to make that wise call when you’ve been drinking. And that’s because of the way alcohol interrupts important brain functioning related to judgement and cause and effect type decisions. Let’s watch this short video to better understand why: DUI: Is it a Choice or an Accident?

QuitAlcohol.com, an initiative of the Alcohol Abuse Counsel and a trained group of volunteers, offers a guide addressing drinking and driving aimed at college students (and the general public).

Drinking as a Teen to Prepare for Drinking as an Adult

Adult: You’ll be off to college next fall, where there is a lot of drinking. I think it’s important you learn how to drink so you don’t get into trouble so we’re going to let you have a few beers now an again until you head off.
Teen: It’s okay to drink even though I’m not 21.
Alternative message:

There are good reasons to delay drinking until 21, and it has to do with the brain going through it’s final stages of development.  [Check out short video, It's Time We Tell the Whole Truth About Puberty for info on brain development.] For this reason, it’s better to delay drinking as long as possible. According to the NIAAA, every year a person delays drinking before age 21, they reduce the risk of becoming dependent on alcohol by 14%. Take a look at related blog post, “How Teens Become Alcoholics Before Age 21.” Also, here is a link to NIAAA’s “Research About College Drinking and Prevention.”

An alternative way to think of this is that we don’t give teens the car keys and tell them to practice driving on the freeway until they get it right so they’re good and ready when they apply for their driver’s license at age 16.

Stop Underage Drinking provides a host of informational pieces at it’s site, Parent and Caregiver Resources to Stop Underage Drinking.

Hosting Teen Parties and Serving Alcohol

Adult: I’d rather they drink here, and I take away the car keys. That way, no one will get hurt.
Teen: Mom / Dad will watch out and keep everyone safe so party down!
Alternative message:

The majority of teens who drink don’t drink to savor the taste or enjoy a beer or two. (Think Beer Pong.) They drink to get drunk, or if not intentionally drunk, they drink in quantities that will get them drunk. As a parent hosting such a party, you cannot keep track of how much is being consumed (think Water Bottle), nor who comes/where they are (think BACKYARD and there is no guest list [think cell phone/Facebook blasts]). Additionally, because the young brain is not fully developed, teens can often drink far more alcohol than adults before they pass out, for example, but that does not mean their brains are handling it. The liver can only metabolize about one drink per hour (a very rough average)… eight drinks is a lot of alcohol “sitting” in the brain (easy to do when you’re playing Beer Pong and ‘doing’ shots), waiting for eight hours to be metabolized by the liver. Check out this related post, “How Long Does Alcohol Stay in the System?” This is another that may help, “Underage Drinking: 5 Things Parents Should Consider to Keep the Message Clear.” And, SAMHSA offers a number of conversations starters, as well.

It can be so difficult to navigate the high school years and what to do about drinking. As parents, we all want to do what’s best for our children. But new research is giving us new insights as to how alcohol works on the brain and how the brain develops. Hopefully the above can help. Most importantly, talk early and often (not lecture, but talk) with your teens – sometimes using the science can help.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author Speaker Consultant Owner at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa Frederiksen is the owner of Breaking the Cycles.com and the author of nine books and hundreds of articles. For over ten years, she has been researching, writing, speaking and consulting on substance abuse prevention, addiction as a brain disease, dual diagnosis, secondhand drinking | drugging, help for the family and related subjects – all centered around 21st century brain and addiction-related research. Her clients (some as far as Kenya, Slovenia and Mexico), include: individuals, families, military troops and personnel, U.S. Forest Service districts and regions, medical school students, businesses, social workers, parent and student groups, family law attorneys, treatment providers and the like. Please feel free to call Lisa at 650-362-3026 or email her at lisaf@breakingthecycles.com.

6 Responses to Underage Drinking – When Adults Send Mixed Messages

  1. I agree with you , Lisa. I did the call me and I was called once or twice. I get livid about drinking and driving . I lost my teen aged uncle who was like a big brother to a drink and driving accident. I have seen up too close how dreadful it can be. Thanks for reminding people how important it is to educate kids!

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Great information for parents of teens. It is a challenge to guide your child through those years keeping them safe, while maintaining a positive relationship with them. As we know, parents do need to be parents during the teen years and we can look forward to a more adult relationship with our children as they grow older. You have provided some helpful resources for parents on how to talk to their teen. Thanks so much!

  3. Jim Saporito says:

    Good points! I’ve been on both sides of the issue. First, as a 17-year old, when my parents gave me the “no questions asked” offer. Still, I was afraid to to get in trouble for drinking and drove a short distance home somewhat under the influence of alcohol. The second time, I was 18-years old and in no condition to drive at all. My friends called my parents and my Dad came and drove me home. The next day, no one yelled at me for drinking but I felt embarrassed and my underage drinking days basically ended.

    A few years later, a friend at school died in an alcohol related car accident. Once tragedy strikes close to home, it changes how you look at these issues. Life is so short as it is, it’s a shame that drugs and alcohol continue to be responsible for so many life altering injuries and death.

    • Thank you so much, Jim, for sharing your experiences and comment.I’m terribly sorry to hear about your school friend – as you said, “life is so short” and it’s such a shame the way drug and alcohol abuse or addiction can alter so many lives through injury, death and the ripple effect of drinking and drugging behaviors. Thanks again for adding your comment.

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