Educating Teens about Drinking

When it comes to your teenager and alcohol, many parents struggle with finding the best approach to deal with the problem. And teenage drinking is a problem. However, it always has been and is not just a problem of this generation; and is instead one that has remained intrusive through the eras.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, was passed when congress required ALL STATES in the US to legislate 21 as the legal drinking age. Before that, states were allowed to set their own legal drinking age, and most varied between 16 and 18. Interestingly, raising the legal drinking age to 21 (which also offered states a 10% tax break if they obliged) caused quite a ruckus among many people.

For one thing, how can you expect a man or woman to be responsible enough to serve their country in times of war or allow them to vote, but not trust them with a beer?

From 1975 to 1986, society began focusing on drunken driving fatalities that occurred among people under the age of 21. Many states began voluntarily raising their minimum purchase age to 19, 20 or 21 – but still allowed 18 year olds to drink. Enter Ronald Reagan in 1982, and the real epidemic of teen drinking began. Not because he caused it in anyway, but because he commissioned a group to study the effects of alcohol and teens, broadening the influence of the popular Mothers Against Drunk Driving Group. (MADD). It wasn’t that the problem became more acute, but that awareness had.

Then in 1984, the minimum drinking age in the United States was raised to 21. However, in many parts of the world, there is no drinking age, or it remains at 18, which is legally considered the age of consent. Additionally, 18 marks the point in life where a person is no longer considered a juvenile and can be punished in a court of law as an adult. So in many ways, it seems hypocritical to maintain a legal drinking age of 21.

Even today, opposition of the legal drinking age remains fierce. The National Youth Rights Association founded in 1998, as well as many members of congress and even an organization of 100 college professors have worked meticulously without luck, to lower the legal drinking age. However, the images of teens being arrested or being killed in horrid automobile accidents that involve alcohol seem to generally outweigh any of the common sense reasons for lowering drinking age. And worse, parents seem to extract a warm and fuzzy security net from the government maintaining a legal age of 21 in the United States. But as a parent, is it enough to rely on the laws in place to educate your teen about alcohol – especially considering the nature of the beast? Be honest, did a legal drinking age stop you or others you knew in school from refraining from alcohol as a teen?

And perhaps more importantly, is the fact that despite all of this, teens are still drinking. In fact, in recent surveys among children from the ages of 12 – 18, compiled by SADD, statistics on teen drinking have not been thwarted by the legal requirement of needing to be 21 to drink. Around 26.4% of teens in this age group (12 – 18) admit to drinking every weekend with friends (without parental knowledge), and 72% of high school students admit to drinking at least twice every month. Among 8th graders (average age of 13-15), 37% admit to be experimenting with alcohol. Additionally, when asked about the ease of acquiring alcohol, 96% of the teens surveyed admitted that it was easy to get alcohol, either from using fake id’s, stealing the alcohol from home or by paying others to purchase the alcohol for them.

Of these underage drinking 1/3 admit to drinking in their own homes without parental consent, while the majority admits to drinking at friends home – some of which are provided the alcohol by parents. Even more surprisingly, is that drinking among teens is not a problem confined to one demographic. In fact, by and large middle to upper class whites are more prone to alcohol use at a young age than any other racial group. And this teenage drinking DOES come with consequences. For instance, Teen Drug Abuse, an organization designed to help curb alcohol and drug use by teens found that:

  • Motor vehicle accidents among teens that are drinking is the number one cause of death for persons age 15 – 20.
  • Teens that drink have a 65% higher rate of committing suicide than those that refrain.
  • Teens that drink, increase their risk of sexual assault and rape by 65%. And first time consensual sex – and high-risk sex acts (without protection) are evident in around 89% of teens who admit to drinking on a regular basis. Most of these incidences coincide with alcohol use.

So, kids today are drinking. And there is risk.

The question then turns to one for parents to answer, and is more about educating teens about drinking rather than using punitive means to curb it. Much research has gone into trying to help parents find the best way to relate to teens when it comes to alcohol, and the end result is that nearly every household deals with the issue differently.

For some parents, they believe that allowing children to experiment at home, under the safe parental eye enables teens to learn how drinking affects them, and teaches responsible drinking. These same parents likely drink in the presence of their kids, and have what may be seen as a lackadaisical approach to the alcohol and teen issue. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they condone or encourage the behavior; but more that they realize their child is going to drink with or without permission, and they would prefer it done responsibly. Is this the best approach?

One study performed by MADD, seems to show it is. The research was compiled from drinking incidences (including deaths) of entering college freshmen who were from zero tolerance households. It found that these students were more apt to drink to the point of drunkenness, than those whose parents taught (and showed them) responsible consumption. In many ways, it makes sense. Just as children who are never allowed to eat candy will make themselves sick if given the opportunity, teens never allowed to test the alcoholic waters may too be prone to overindulgence.

Yet on the other hand, persons that grow up in homes where the parents drink on a regular basis are three times as more likely to become alcoholics as adults than those that grow up in homes without the presence of alcohol.

The truth is that parents can argue over this issue, and will still never agree. What parents need to do is set some ground rules with their children, with the affirmed realization that at some point every child, (yes, even yours) is going to try it. Assume the worst and hope for the best. This way, you can at least prepare them for what’s ahead and give them the tools they need to make informed decisions during a time where they experience high peer pressure, and you are likely not around.

A reality based program for educating teens about alcohol, available at works from the although undesirable, realistic approach that “teen alcohol consumption is common, and is seen as an acceptable part of the normal teenage social life.” Additionally, realize that your teenager doesn’t quite buy into the dire straits, loom, and doom scare tactics that many education programs utilize to try and thwart teen alcohol usage. Even if they see the statistics and hear the lectures, the problem is that teens by and large still see themselves as exceptions to the rule.

So in order for parents to make a difference, parents must do the following.

  1. Be honest, open, non-damning, and realistic with your children when talking about drinking. Keep in mind, that even the most level headed, mature teens – are not immune to alcohol experimentation. Ensure that when you talk about alcohol with your teen, you leave plenty of opportunity for them to feel that YOU are a safe house. This is vital, especially if your teen needs a ride home. Realize that preaching abstinence as the ONLY option, while desired – will likely fall on deaf ears. Instead, give them options for safe drinking should they find themselves entangled with alcohol.
  2. Use ‘restorative processes” to approach punishment for alcohol rule infractions at home. Realize that your children do not realize the direct impact that their experimentation with alcohol has on them, you, or others – and give them an opportunity to ‘make amends.’ In Alcoholics Anonymous, this is the 9th step, and by using this approach to deal with discipline, you allow your child to take responsibility and make new choices for themselves.
  3. Friends are NOT always the problem. Blaming your child’s choice of friends, another set of parents, or someone outside of your teen for making the bad choice to drink will not fix the problem. In fact, it can make it worse. Parents often do this as a means to protect themselves from admitting that their own child is not perfect. Instead, empower your child to make responsible decisions REGARDLESS of who they are with or where they are, holding them accountable. This will also allow the to feel more comfortable calling on you should they find themselves in a situation where they aren’t comfortable. If they think you are only going to be angry, and punitive – chances are they will choose to lie to you.
  4. Talk! A lot! They are listening. Even if your child doesn’t want to hear you go on about the implications of teen drinking, talk anyways. Don’t pull out the ‘high and mighty’ card insinuating that you were the ‘perfect child.’ Instead, realize that your teen, just like you, is going to make mistakes. Some parents and teens relate well when parents aren’t afraid to admit their own mistakes as teens when it comes to drinking.
  5. Keep tabs on your children. If you suspect that they are dabbling in alcohol or drugs, then it is your responsibility to remain on top of the situation. Is it okay to read their diary? Only if you suspect they might be in some sort of danger. But it is okay to follow your children around, enable GPS on their cell phone, and make impromptu checks on them. This is your right, and trust is earned not given blindly.
  6. Allow your kids to socialize at YOUR house. Most teens admit to drinking somewhere besides their own home. If you allow your home to be a place for your teen and their friends to congregate, you will be able to control what goes on there. If you leave this to someone else’s parents, you can end up playing by their rules.

Educating teens about alcohol is not as difficult as you think. While you may want the outcome for your child when it comes to teen drinking to be one thing, there is a good chance that the reality will be they do drink at some point in their young life. It won’t be because of a law, but rather in spite of. Just make sure that your alcohol education at home is one that suits your expectations for your child, and your beliefs about drinking. Also, remember that despite the social issues that teen drinking poses, there are also numerous health risks to a teenager who consumes alcohol.



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