Alcohol Use and Teens: The Role of Adults

What are you telling your teens (with words or actions) about alcohol use? There was a very thought-provoking article in Time Magazine last week about alcohol use and teens. In spite of the fact that it focused on the negative and forgot to point out that nearly half of teens do not drink alcohol and 80% do not binge drink, it presented some very interesting facts including:
  • more than half of underage teens drank alcohol;
  • 40% of the underage drinkers got their alcohol from an adult; and
  • 20% of underage drinkers have participated in binge drinking (5+ in a sitting).
The article also forgot to point out that alcohol is involved in most sexual assault and rape cases, which I think should always be mentioned. However, as disturbing as those facts are, the thing that bothered me the most was the critical and enabling role of adults. The article suggested that teens who binge drink are likely to come from families where an adult binge drinks, and much of the alcohol consumed was provided by adults.

I think this topic brings up several important assumptions and suggests a couple of key decisions for parents to make. First, the assumptions - do you as a parent think that it is inevitable that teens drink? Do you assume that if you do not provide teens with alcohol that they will get it somewhere else? Do you believe that teens who are prohibited from drinking are more likely to binge drink when they get to college, or turn 21? Do you believe your child would not drink and drive or get in a car with someone else who had been drinking? Do you think your child understand the vulnerability for sexual assault associated with alcohol use? Do you believe that your own relationship with alcohol use is healthy?

Now the decisions - will you allow your teen to drink at special occasions or dinner? Will you allow other teens to drink in your home at special occasions or dinner? Will you allow your teen to drink more than a small amount during the meal? Will you provide alcohol to teens during a party in your home? If alcohol is served at a party, should the parent be a) present, and b) liable for anything that happens? Will you drink more than one in front of your children? Will you drink and drive?

These are sticky questions and translate in real problems for adults who may not be responsible drinkers and for the few teens with a propensity for alcoholism and risk taking. I realize that your answers may be different if you grew up with an alcoholic parent, your child is a risk taker, or you live in a very alcohol-oriented community, but I think it is important to think about these issues and talk through them with your children.

As always, teens are more likely to abide by rules that they participate in making, seem fair, and have clear consequences if broken. Good luck!

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