by Samurai Dad
As a tagalong on my wife’s business trip to Austria many years ago, I had the chance to wander through a little town called Linz. On one of my daily walks, I started noticing groups of young teens hanging out, drinking beer in public. The adults bustled around me, scarcely giving the merrymakers a second glance. While I stood there trying to get my American sensibilities in order, I considered how alcohol is perceived so differently in Europe.
Recently, the topic of introducing teens to alcohol came up from a friend who argued that teens would learn their limits safely through a glass of wine at the family dinner table. I wondered about how an introduction to alcohol in our home would affect our teens and our family. So I did some research, discussed other parents’ experiences and revisited my own memories. The information I found was surprising.
Should I let my teens drink alcohol? There are many things to consider about teen alcohol use at home. For me, the short answer to this question is no. Delay teen use of alcohol. There are many other ways to support social growth without opening the door to mood-altering substances before teens are ready.
A common belief for many parents like my friend is that an introduction to alcohol by a parent removes a perceived taboo and teaches teens how to drink responsibly in a safe environment. They argue that it’s the way it’s been done in Europe and many other cultures around the globe for centuries. At first glance, it seems a reasonable approach. Cosmopolitan, even.
Before you follow that path, consider the potential consequences of parent-sanctioned alcohol use.
A caveat first: I’m not an expert or medically trained. As a concerned parent, this is the information I found to help guide my approach with my own teens. I’ve included links to the resources I used if you wish to take a closer look at this information.
How does the Teen Brain Respond to Alcohol?
There is a robust amount of information available about the impact of teen drinking on a developing brain. I used information from GWA and URMC in my effort to understand the brain’s response to alcohol. Critical messaging functions and structural areas called the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are particularly vulnerable to alcohol. Neurotransmitters enable nerve cells to communicate with each other and other cells of the body. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that influences planning, judgment, decision making, impulse control, and language. The hippocampus is an area responsible for memory and learning.
Image Source: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
While it is not clear how much alcohol will affect the development of these areas of the brain, many of the studies show that early alcohol use can impede healthy function and affect size and structure of these areas. The teen years through early adulthood are a time when incredibly important educational, occupational, and social decisions are made. Impaired reasoning and brain functioning at this time could substantially influence their future.
All teen brains go through this brain growth, no matter how high-achieving the teens appear. You may hear from other parents, “Our son has it together. He’s a National Honor Society student and captain of his soccer team. ” Those are great achievements and would make any parent proud. This teen may be very smart and athletically skilled but his brain is not ready to excel in good judgment and the ability to see long-term consequences of his actions. Adding alcohol, which impairs the judgment of a fully matured adult, can easily lead to complex patterns and situations that a teen is not equipped to manage.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Research shows that people who start drinking before the age of 15 are 4 times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.”
Put another way: A teen who drinks before the age of 15 has quadruple the chance of developing alcohol dependence.
Does your family have a history of alcoholism? Teen Drinking Raises the Stakes
Alcoholism is prevalent in my and my spouse’s families. Reflecting back on my own childhood memories, I realized that the abuse of alcohol was more common than I thought. Both of my parents struggled with alcohol addiction and there was clear alcohol abuse among extended family. I needed to weigh this aspect of family history heavily in my position on whether to allow my own teens to drink alcohol.
This increased risk of alcoholism to be passed down through generations merits an open, possibly uncomfortable, discussion with your teen to make them aware of their family history and the possible outcomes for them. Remember, it’s not about shaming anyone or their memory for being an alcoholic, it’s about having a frank discussion about a predisposition to a life-altering disease.
Here’s why: According to American Addiction Centers, a family history of alcoholism is linked to an increased risk of alcohol use disorder, depending on how close the relatives are to each other. Children who have one parent who struggles with alcohol use disorder have 3-4 times increased risk of becoming an alcoholic themselves.
How does teen drinking escalate?
There are many social forces pushing and pulling on teens. The hidden and overt pressures combined with a teen’s hard-wired desire for independence can lay the groundwork for escalating alcohol use. What may start as a drink at dinner with parental oversight can easily evolve into a routine weekend of alcohol-fueled interaction with friends. This atmosphere can greatly increase exposure to alcohol and opportunities for alcohol abuse.
When you look at their world from a teen’s perspective, here are some of the things you may see:
Social Media – Whether its SnapChat, Instagram, texting, YouTube or yes, even Facebook, teens form an attitude toward partying based on what a friend or acquaintance has captured in a moment in time. Research performed by the University of Pennsylvania has shown a correlation between alcohol-related posts and actual alcohol consumption.
Drinking culture – In addition to social media, there is likely a strong narrative about drinking threading through your teen’s friendships and in school. Groups of teen friends often gather with the sole purpose of drinking. It could be at a party, a friend’s house in a vacant parking lot, or after a basketball game. It may not even be an after-school-special style of peer-pressure that’s driving a teen to drink. It’s likely to be a pervasive, accepted norm. A great resource for understanding teen drinking culture in the United States can be found in this report of a research initiative performed at George Mason University.
Perceived Benefits – Society promotes alcohol as a tool to get us through awkward or stressful situations. The message is that a drink or two (or more) can be used in social interactions to help reduce inhibitions, feel more relaxed, reduce tension, foster courage, and reduce worry. And who wouldn’t want that?
Share with your teen this core truth about alcohol: In certain situations, what starts as a primer drink can lead to a few with internal pressures driving consumption. And in reducing the inhibitions, alcohol also has a way of magnifying those same stressors into impulsive, inappropriate or aggressive behavior.
Minimizing the risk – Teens with a familiarization and a history of drinking tend to believe alcohol-related risks are less likely to occur. You may hear “I’ve only had 2. I can handle it, I’ve had way more than that. I can still _______. No problem”.
Remember all the folk wisdom passed down through the ages about a gentle introduction to alcohol? It’s been swept away by the tsunami of cold facts of potential damage to my teen’s development. The evidence against allowing my teen to drink was clear.
Yet, with all those influences whispering in your teen’s ear, all the pervasive and social acceptance of teen drinking culture, what chance do you have in keeping your teen from drinking?
The Challenge: How do I prevent or delay my teen from drinking alcohol?
Believe it or not, you still have influence with your teen. Developing trust, communicating effectively and loving them unconditionally can all help them to make responsible decisions about alcohol and other substances.
- Build a trusting relationship with your teen. It’s difficult to make any progress without trust. We frame it for our teens like this: trust is the faith that a person will do the right thing when nobody’s watching. See also: The 6 Best Ways to Build Trust in Your Teenager
- Communicate with your teen. Have regular open discussions with your teen. Talk to them about the dangers of underage drinking. Be authentic about your concerns and fears related to drinking. Discuss your family’s history with alcohol. Explain why the perceived benefits of drinking are fleeting and just plain bullshit. It is far more valuable to build the skill to navigate socially awkward situations without alcohol in your system. See also: How Can I Talk with My Teen.
- Be direct about your expectations – You do not want them to drink until they are of legal age. Identify consequences for breaking the rules.
- Look for teaching moments based on the behavior of others and use in a low-key way to start a discussion.
- The information below, adapted from American Addiction Centers, identify other strategies to help limit teen drinking. Parents can help teens manage ready responses to the overt and covert pressures to drink.
- Encourage them to participate in activities that are not conducive to drinking alcohol such as sports, performance arts, clubs, or sponsored recreational events
- Take the social fall for your kids – Let them use you as the bad guy. They can say, “I have to check-in with my parents when I get home. They’ll definitely know I’ve been drinking. I don’t want to lose my car again.”
- Encourage them to make friends with kids with similar interests who don’t drink.
- Be prepared with a ready response – Make sure he knows how he’ll respond when someone offers him a drink.
- Set a plan in place to allow teens a guaranteed “out” if an experience with friends feels uncomfortable. For example, Burt Fulks devised a sequence of events designed to get his teens out of any uncomfortable peer situation without losing face. The trigger? The letter X sent by text to any member of the family. His X Plan also – and this is important – hinges on the assurance by mom and dad that no questions will be asked.
- If they make a mistake, enforce the consequences but also provide an appropriate pathway for them to redeem your trust.
What are the drinking levels among teens in the US?
According to a 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), high school students were asked about their alcohol consumption over the past 30 days. They found:
- 30% responded that they drank some amount of alcohol.
- 14% responded that they binge drank.
- 6% responded that they drove a car after drinking alcohol.
- 17% responded that they rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
- In 2013, there were approximately 119,000 emergency rooms visits by persons aged 12 to 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.
What are the drinking levels among teens in the European Union Member States, Switzerland and Norway?
According to the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe:
- 60% of teens ages 15-19 are current drinkers
- 1 in 5 deaths are attributed to alcohol
It’s the Law: Why is the drinking age 21?
The history of the regulation of use in America is summed up nicely in Jasmine Bittar’s article, Why Is the Legal Drinking Age 21? The Story of It All.
In 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed, which stated federal highway funds would be withheld from U.S. states that failed to set the minimum legal drinking age back at 21. By 1988, all the states had adopted the age minimum.
The selected age of 21 had little to do with brain development or rates of alcoholism among teens. The two explanations that were most common in my research were related to legal age and traffic fatalities respectively.
- Dating centuries back to English Common law, the age of 21 actually represented one becoming a full adult. Adults carried the privilege to vote and become a knight. Lawmakers believed only adults should be entitled to drink since it came with such responsibility, therefore allowing adults 21 years of age and older to drink legally.
- In the ’70s when individual states dropped the drinking age to 18, data showed an increase in underage fatalities due to traffic accidents prompting action at the federal level. Raising the drinking age to 21 was an effort targeted at reducing road fatalities.
What are the social host laws in my state if I permit an underage drinking party in my home?
You may have heard parents say, “I’d rather have my kid and his friends drinking in my house rather than driving around drunk.” State laws vary in the degree of parents’ legal liability if an underage child who has drunk alcohol in their home is caught or involved in an accident. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Treatment Research Institute has provided a tool to search by state laws: https://socialhost.drugfree.org/
What are the effects of Vaping on teen development? See: The Difference Between Juuling and Vaping: A Parent’s Guide
See also: Are You a Parent Samurai?