Celebrating Safely with Alcohol
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.