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.
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?
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.
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!
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.