Alcohol and other hallucinogens have been around for millennia. And where there are hallucinogens, there are people who use them. Laws have been enacted to protect naïve, immature or misguided citizens from the dangers of these substances and to dissuade their use. Over time, for the most part, our adult citizens have upheld these laws and guided their children accordingly.
Alcohol, or ethanol (ethyl alcohol), is a poison in known quantities. Alcohol consumption in an average-size adult acts as neurotoxic psychoactive drug. In the hands of a smaller, impulsive, immature teenager it can be destructive.
Today, a new type of parenting is changing this culture. Parents are knowingly (or blindly) allowing their teenage children to host and/or attend open-liquor bottle house parties. Some believe that they are protecting their kids, thinking that they are safer drinking at home than on the streets. This practice is not only dangerous, it undermines traditional morals (and legalities) of those who still care — and they have hit home. My home.
By nature, teens explore and experiment. They always have. They explore and experiment emotionally, sexually, verbally, physically — and pharmacologically. Adolescence is a time of individuation.
For centuries, these explorations remained mostly small scale, short lived and somewhat covert. Today, however, things are drastically different.
From unmonitored cellphone abuse to condoning at-home drinking parties, parents have been conjured (or connived) into allowing kids to do things that were never acceptable years prior. Are parents afraid of their own children? Are they afraid of the truth? Are they afraid of confrontation, rebellion, or the consequences and fallout of saying “no”?
I find that many parents think they are teaching their kids how to drink responsibly and that by allowing them to drink at home, they will be less apt to binge, black out or engage in secondary inappropriate behaviors.
As a result, parents of kids who are invited to these parties are being forced to conform to the false comfort of accepting that their kids are drinking in someone’s home instead of a dark alley or knowing that they are Ubering instead of driving home intoxicated. We should be grateful? No. The parents and teens who host these open-bottle parties are insidiously creating a new normal and a new “right” thing to do — that many of us can’t seem to fight.
The Wall Street Journal article by Melinda Beck, “Do Parents Who Serve Teens Beer and Wine at Home Raise Responsible Drinkers?” ponders the same question. Parents teach their children how to swim, how to ride a bicycle and how to drive. Should they also teach their teenagers how to drink responsibly? Or does early exposure lead to an increase in alcohol abuse later on?
Many parents argue that underage drinking of any kind is dangerous and illegal and that parents who allow it are sending an irresponsible message that could set teens up for alcohol abuse in later years. Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, says that when kids under age 15 start drinking and drinking heavily, they are about six times more likely to end up with alcohol problems.
A survey of 6,245 U.S. teens, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004, found that adults play a very important role in teen drinking — but in different ways. Teens who attended a party where alcohol was supplied by a parent were twice as likely to have engaged in binge drinking and twice as likely to be regular drinkers. But teens who drank along with their parents were only one-third as likely to binge and half as likely to be regular drinkers.
Fallout and Health Risks
Despite the fact that 31 states allow parents and guardians to furnish alcohol to minors (in seven of the 31 states, this is permissible only in a private residence), Beck shares that U.S. government agencies and scores of alcohol-awareness groups say that no amount of underage drinking is permissible, and that no matter where it comes from, teens who drink alcohol are at extra risk of being involved in motor-vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides and accidents of all kinds, as well as unplanned sex, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Compared to adults, teens drink less often — most often due to the lack of access to alcohol. So when they do get to drink, they often overcompensate. The average underage drinker consumes more drinks per occasion than adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and 90 percent of that consumption is in the form of binge drinks (defined as five or more drinks at one time).
Research suggests that alcohol can do long-term harm to developing brains. In the late teens and early 20s, the brain is developing its adult shape, pruning away unused connections and forming permanent pathways, particularly in areas involved in planning, decision-making and impulse control.
Researchers at the University of California-San Diego wrote in the Journal of Clinical EEG and Neuroscience in 2009 that brain scans revealed significant changes in the frontal cortex, the hippocampus and white matter — leading to decreased cognitive function, executive function, memory, attention and spatial skills in teens who drink more than 20 drinks in a month.
These teens fared worse on thinking and memory tests than ones who didn’t drink. The CDC adds that kids who begin drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to experience alcohol dependence in life than those who start drinking after the age of 21.
Just because alcohol is provided by parents doesn’t prevent or undo its damaging effects.
Role of Parents
▪ Let them drink. Rachel Bender, in her Yahoo article “Should you allow your teenager to drink at home? The Great Debate,” cites one study, published in the 2004 Journal of Adolescent Heath, that found that children who drank with their parents were about half as likely to say they had alcohol in the past month and about one third as likely to admit to binge drinking.
Some people believe that Americans need to reconsider how they teach kids about alcohol. In psychologist and addiction expert Stanton Peele’s book Addiction-Proof Your Child, he recounts how he taught his kids to drink in a civilized fashion, like civilized human beings.
He says that any program that tells kids flatly not to drink creates temptation. Preparing your children to drink at home lessens the likelihood that they are going to binge drink. But many other experts say he is off base. They say by allowing teens to drink, you are giving them permission to do harmful things.
▪ Don’t let them drink. So, is it smarter for parents to allow teens to drink at home where they can keep an eye on them? Or can these good intentions backfire?
Sharon Levy, M.D., director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, says that while it is well-intentioned, it is a very bad idea to allow teens to drink at home.
Levy says that binge drinking is often a way for teens to satisfy the normal drive for adventure, it is very dangerous, and parental supervision cannot protect them. Underage drinking is also illegal. Every year teens drinking at supervised house parties die from drowning, cold exposure and other accidents.
▪ Communicate. Many parents remain stumped about what to say to their children about alcohol. Several studies have found that parents who are authoritative — communicating expectations with a give-and-take style with their children — are more effective at keeping them from alcohol abuse than those who are authoritarian, permissive or disengaged.
The best approach to teens and alcohol is to talk to them about your concerns and your expectations, to answer their questions, and of course to set a good example yourself.
Open dialogue that involve discussions of potential situations like There may be a lot of people drinking. Have you thought about how you’re going to handle that? are effective as long as you really listen to their answers.
▪ Context. Peele says some parents argue that context matters in that there is a big difference between a kid who gets totally wasted on booze in the woods with his friends, and someone who has wine at dinner with his or her parents or as part of a religious ceremony.
Abigail Baird, associate professor of psychology at Vassar College, argues that if anything, in terms of biology, the age limits on driving and drinking should be flipped.
Baird believes that society could use the way young people learn to help them learn how to drink responsibly at an earlier age. If drinking were less of a clandestine affair, appropriate modeling could help teens learn how to behave around alcohol.
In the end
I believe that condoning underage drinking is wrong on so many levels. As parents, I believe we should maintain open discourse, model appropriate behaviors ourselves and help steer our kids toward meaningful and engaging pastimes. Alcohol is for kids who are bored and for parents who don’t know any better.
I can think of many things I have done and will continue to do to help my kids learn and grow — things that will help them become better adults. Helping them learn how to drink or use illegal substances is not one of them. With that mindset, we soon will be hosting heroin parties when our kids get tired of vodka.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.
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