For many families, drinking alcohol is a way to celebrate something. The good cheer of the holiday season is liberally laced with wine. We use champagne and liquor to show our happiness at weddings and births.
This association of alcohol with celebration leads many parents to wonder whether or when they should permit their children to drink socially, even though it is illegal. Will forbidding alcohol make it even more appealing? Will condoning drinking lead to alcoholism for the child? If you talk to your child about not drinking and driving, is that giving him tacit permission to drink as long as he doesn’t drive?
Alcoholism researchers and developmental psychologists say the answers are not that simple. They also agree that it’s a bad idea to allow your children to drink alcohol at home simply because you assume they will just do it elsewhere. In fact, that makes it harder for teenagers to decline a drink in other situations. Protecting children from alcohol abuse requires a grasp of how different their thinking is from adult thinking, and recognition that alcohol can be a serious problem for them and for their friends.
The nationwide laws in the United States against drinking alcohol by anyone under age 21 do little to prevent teenagers from obtaining it easily. Research at the Harvard School of Public Health has found that about 40 percent of boys in their senior year of high school are binge drinkers that is, when they drink, they have five or more drinks at a time. It also found that among college freshmen, 80 percent of the men and 70 percent of the women admitted drinking alcohol within 30 days of being interviewed. Almost half the men and more than a third of the women said they’ve been drunk during that time.
The allure of alcohol is strongest during adolescence, when many children are looking for ways to mask their feelings of awkwardness, bolster self-confidence, increase social acceptance, and take new risks. They have spent years developing expectations for what drinking alcohol will do and what it means. These images, which are often unrealistic, have been shaped in part by advertising and by their parents’ patterns of drinking.
Studies by Dr. Alan Marlatt, the director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington at Seattle, have found that those teenagers who are most likely to have trouble with alcohol have different expectations of its risks and benefits. The high-risk adolescents expect that alcohol will always make them feel better and that the more they drink, the better they’ll feel. They see it as a general tension reducer that will lower their social anxieties and concerns about self-esteem. Also, boys who are at high risk for alcohol abuse say that alcohol will make both them and their dates more attractive. (One teenager he interviewed told Dr. Marlatt that he drank heavily at parties because all of his dates “looked prettier through beer goggles.”)
Those adolescents at lower risk for abusing alcohol have a more balanced set of expectations, including concerns about getting sick and embarrassing themselves.
Avoiding Problems with Alcohol
Alcohol education should begin early for the simple reasons that children are exposed to alcohol advertising well before they are old enough to drink. In fact, it’s not unusual for preschoolers who see sports events and their accompanying commercials on television to be able to identify different brands of beer before they can read.
While you needn’t start that early, it’s a good idea to talk to your children about alcohol by early adolescence. Here are some approaches:
- Let your children know what you expect of them, and why. Simply saying you don’t want him to drink won’t convince a teenager unless you can back it up with reasons. Giving your child clear expectations of family rules and an awareness of family values goes a long way. It means that when your child’s confronted with peer pressure, he will know what you expect.
- Provide evidence for not wanting your child to drink alcohol. Ads show drinking as part of being a successful, competent, attractive adult much as cigarette ads give the false impression that smokers are rugged athletes who have glistening white teeth and a broad range of physically attractive friends. Adolescents are especially susceptible to those messages. They provide what teenagers want most at a time when they feel invulnerable to the risks involved.
- Point out stories in the newspaper where adolescents were involved in drunken-driving accidents or were arrested at public events or private parties for using alcohol. Don’t do this all at once, but do it regularly and subtly.
- Pay close attention to your children’s friends. Teenagers tend to drink what their friends do. If you know some of your child’s friends are getting into trouble with alcohol, pay closer attention to your own child’s behavior.
Also, pay attention to and support your children’s friendships with nondrinkers. An adolescent is more likely to refuse alcohol at a party if he is with a friend who also doesn’t want to drink. The friend provides social support.
- Get to know the parents of your children’s friends. Let them know you will not allow your underage children to attend parties where alcohol is served. Ask the other parents to agree to the same criteria.
- Talk to your child about not driving if he’s been drinking, and especially about not getting into a car with a driver who’s been drinking. Although some parents worry about this giving children a set of contradictory messages (i.e., you’re not allowed to drink alcohol, but I expect that you will), it really does not. Instead, it allows your child to see your priorities: You have rules that you believe in, but you value his life and health more than any rule. Let your children know that if they call home from a party and say that they need to be picked up, you will either get them yourself or pay for a taxi to do so. Also you will do this without questioning their motives or their integrity. (This approach may come in handy in other situations as well, such as if you have a daughter who’s worried about being sexually assaulted in her date’s car on the way home. She’ll feel much more comfortable calling you for help if she doesn’t have to explain her reasons.) Giving your teenagers this power tells them that you trust their judgment, even if they make a mistake or get into trouble.
- Finally, recognize that two of the main reasons teenagers drink are to cope with stress and to experience an altered state of consciousness. Dr. Marlatt has found that college students who were heavy drinkers were able to reduce their alcohol consumption by 30 to 40 percent when they either did aerobic exercise or practiced meditation. Those who regularly exercised and meditated reduced their alcohol consumption by 50 to 60 percent. Developing such alternative coping strategies might also prevent light drinkers from getting into trouble.