A teen I talked to recently was surprisingly candid about her summertime fun at the beach. “My friends and I have a special spot far from where families go and out of sight of the lifeguards. We’re not supposed to bring in alcohol,” she laughed, “but someone always manages to spike a watermelon or smuggle in a cooler of beer so we can party.”
She loves the sun — and alcohol-soaked afternoons. She loves the late-night gatherings under the stars. “We have our own place and our own friends and no one gives us a hard time about drinking.”
When I asked about parental supervision, she laughed some more. “It’s summer. No school. Our folks go to bed before we come home and go to work before we get up. As long as we get to our jobs and do a little around the house, parents don’t bother us.”
I wish the parents would “bother” them. Flying under the radar of adult supervision, these kids are drinking and they are drinking too much.
Many parents don’t talk to their kids about alcohol because they are unaware of how serious the problem is. Studies have shown that parents tend to underestimate their own children’s behavior around alcohol. One study showed that a significant number of parents surveyed believed that their kids’ friends would drink and drive but didn’t believe their own children would do so.
Another study showed that while 71 percent of the teens in the sample reported that they had been to places where other teens were drinking, only 54 percent of the parents were aware of it. And, according to a 2015 survey by the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, about 1 in 7 teens binge drinks yet only 1 in 100 parents believes his or her own teen does it.
Parents can have more influence than they think they do. Parental monitoring matters. Talking proactively matters as well. If you have a child who is in the pre-teen years, it is not too early to start discussing alcohol-related behavior. If your child is already a teen, it’s never too late to have that conversation.
Here are some tips for dealing with teens and alcohol:
- Get your head out of the beach sand.
At least some of your kids’ friends are drinking. Your kids may be drinking, too. You won’t know unless you ask. Ask with sincere interest. Ask without judgment. Instead, express your concern about the statistics about teen alcohol use and the associated risks. Discuss your values and ask them about theirs. Talk about how they can resist the peer pressure that is an inevitable part of teen partying. Studies show that when approached calmly and reasonably about alcohol use and abuse, teens do take in what we’re trying to tell them.
- Take an honest look at your own behavior around alcohol.
Kids are not interested in talking to adults who they see as hypocrites. If your kids know you’ve made alcohol-related mistakes in the past, acknowledge them and talk to them about what you learned. If you are not in control of your own drinking, take seriously what you are modeling for your kids. Own up to it and get yourself into treatment.
- Do not serve alcohol to your kids.
Some parents think that if kids drink at home, they are better prepared to handle peer pressure. This idea may have appeal but is, in fact, a myth. Research has found that when parents permit teens to drink at home, the teens are more likely to drink when with their friends. Further, it can lead to problems with alcohol as adults.
- Be interested in your kids’ day.
Yes, summer is a time to relax. But it is not a time to relax interest and vigilance about what your kids are doing during unsupervised time. Lack of parent monitoring and worthwhile activity can lead to risky behavior or depression. Get the kids away from long hours alone or peers who are at loose ends. Help them find jobs (either paid or volunteer) or activities (sports leagues, camps, classes) that provide them with structure and direction. Such activities will both keep them productively occupied and will help build a resume for future applications to jobs or schools.
- If your teen has a party:
Make a no-alcohol policy. Contact the other parents and let them know that the party is a sober one. Tell them they will be called to pick up their teen if he or she shows up intoxicated or brings alcohol to the party. Several studies found that parents who supervise teen parties in their own home were less likely to report that their teen had ever come home intoxicated than parents who reported that they don’t supervise parties.
- If your kid is invited to a party:
Call the host parents to confirm that they will be present and that they will intervene if kids bring alcohol. One study showed that teens are less likely to drink when parents check to see if other parents will be present when their teens have a party in their home. If no adult will be present, find something else for your teen to do during the party time.
- Agree on a safety plan.
Make sure your teens always have a safe way home. Tell them that they should call you for a ride if they have had too much to drink or if the friend who was their ride home is too intoxicated to drive safely. Agree to pick them up with no questions asked and no angry scene. What’s important is that they stay safe. The next day is soon enough to review the rules.