teenager ignoring lecture from parents

By Lizz Dinnigan, Preventionist

As a teen growing up on Staten Island in the 80s, access to alcohol was limited. You might have snagged a forgotten, dusty bottle of Peach Schnapps from your parent’s liquor cabinet or found an older friend/sibling with ID. At the time, there was a gas station nicknamed “The Cottage” that had a reputation for selling to minors, and it was a big deal to score a four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. 

Things are different today. Alcohol is very accessible, and in my experience as the mom of two teen boys (one in college and one in high school), parents’ attitude toward teen drinking has certainly softened and, in some cases, borders on enabling. What message are we sending? 

“There is a spectrum,” says J.B. of Monmouth County. “There are parents with zero tolerance, those who are permissive and those who look the other way. ‘Enabling’ is an emotionally charged word. I don’t facilitate; I do not go to the liquor store and buy my kids White Claws or a handle of Tito’s. Some parents enable it by buying, making it accessible and easy. Even if I don’t provide, there’s the legal aspect. There are choices and consequences—it can be a ticket, DUI or you can die.” 

Underage drinking is a reality—legal or not—and that leaves parents of teens conflicted because they struggle with identifying what is ‘the right thing’ to do? Generally, teens are no longer sneaky about experimenting, and that puts parents in an awkward position. They’re faced with hard judgment calls between what’s legal, what they view as the safest/most logical option and the fact that the drinking will happen regardless. So, how do parents navigate this slippery slope? What role do they play in their teens’ introduction to alcohol?

There are so many questions and concerns with which parents grapple:

Is it safer for me to purchase alcohol and allow parties/gatherings at home in my presence, where it’s a controlled environment?

Is it better for my daughters to pre-game and then Uber to a party where they don’t have to worry about someone contaminating their unattended drinks?

Is drinking okay if the teens sleep over and I hide their car keys?

Are my boundaries firm enough?

Education and Conversation

Unfortunately, there are no cut-and-dried answers. Marc Bromfeld, chairman of Responsibility.org–a national nonprofit that aims to eliminate drunk driving and underage drinking–says parents are the number-one influence on their kid’s decision to drink or not to drink alcohol. 

“Responsibility starts with me,” Bromfeld says. “Educating kids when they’re young is essential. What it comes down to is you need to model responsible drinking and have open conversations with your kids about alcohol. Open conversations, modeling and peer pressure are probably the three biggest influences on kids. We must provide them with tools to manage peer pressure.”

Bromfeld explains the importance of discussing what your teens see on social media and showing them the Alcohol Equivalency Chart. “Kids have Poland Spring bottles filled with vodka,” he says. “You will end up in one of two places: the hospital or morgue.” 

Teen Alcohol Use and Risky Drinking Behaviors | New Castle United for Youth

At college–a teen’s first true taste of freedom–students tend to let loose. If they come from a restrictive home environment, partying can become excessive. “I went off the rails in college, but it was never out of control,” says Bromfeld. “I am raising two daughters, and I see a lot of stuff. My kids tell me that college is zero to 100. I’m not into doing that.”

European Approach

Preventionists teach that the human brain does not stop developing until the age of 25. The earlier substances are introduced, the more likely the teen is to form an addiction. So, is it reasonable to assume that a student who abstains from drinking until the legal age of 21 will be prepared to make smart choices about consuming alcohol if they’ve never imbibed it before? As long as alcohol is considered “forbidden,” the more it is desired.

“We’re embracing the European lifestyle,” says C.M. of Monmouth County. “If you look at the U.S., we were founded on Puritan values. I think that has carried over into our attitude on many things, including alcohol use, whereas in other countries, alcohol use is not as much of a taboo. It’s just part of the culture. For us to be moving toward an attitude like that might not necessarily be a bad thing. You can say it’s going to make it more acceptable to drink and, therefore, more kids are going to be overindulgent, but you could counter that with the argument that if it’s more normalized, kids won’t see it as a big deal when they reach that age. That way, they can learn to enjoy it in a more reasonable and moderate way.”

Many parents with whom I spoke agree with that approach. C.C. of Middlesex County thinks it’s important to explore her daughter’s tolerance level. “[Alcohol] is something she will be exposed to soon enough,” she says. “While we have offered her sips of our wine or beer, and on our family vacation, we plan to offer her a couple of White Claws, she hasn’t found a great interest in it. It’s a tough conversation, but I’d prefer doing what we are doing rather than making it so terribly taboo that it becomes dangerous waters. We are curious what her tolerance level is, and, to be fair, I think it’s too naive for her not to know as she heads to college. I think it’s time we see and that she sees for herself.”

J.T. of Monmouth County would prefer it if her children were at home under her care and observation if they wanted to try alcohol. “This way, they don’t get drunk for the first time around possible strangers,” she says. “I think I would want them to know their limits and learn them at home before drinking out somewhere. I’m just not sure at what age that is.”

G.H. of Monmouth County feels it necessary to train her teens on what their limits are, how to properly hydrate while drinking, and how and when to ask for help if they are stuck in a situation that may be dangerous when alcohol is involved. They know things like never leaving their drink unattended or turning their back on their drink, never accepting a drink from someone if they did not see it being poured and holding their drink at the top. I believe there needs to be very specific boundaries and rules in place and with an ongoing conversation about it.”

Alcoholism in the Family

On the other hand, some parents take a more conservative approach. “Alcoholism runs on both sides of our family,”: says A.S., formerly of Monmouth County. “As the kids are getting older, we have drastically cut back our drinking around them. They rarely see us drink. I have been really frustrated with several parents in my town who have offered my kids drinks at their house during parties where they are clearly celebrating as well.”

G.H. adds that there is alcoholism on her husband’s side of the family. “There are some relatives who I have never seen without a drink in their hand,” she says. “I am keenly aware of how easily my teens could fall victim to this. My biggest fear is that my teens will go off at some point to a party or to college and drink too much, get hurt or sick from drinking. I am hoping that by teaching my teens how to responsibly drink alcohol and what the possible consequences are, they will make smart choices when/if they drink outside the home. All the time.”

Several other parents agree that hereditary alcoholism influences their decisions. “Unfortunately, my children are very exposed to this,” says J.T. “Alcoholism runs in the family.” “They lost an uncle from alcohol withdrawal and are currently watching another uncle who shakes when he doesn’t have alcohol. I also have shared some of my horror stories with them from growing up with alcoholic parents. They each also have friends who have a parent who went to rehab for alcohol.”

The parents with whom I spoke understand that their reach is compromised when their teens are out of the home. Peer pressure and curiosity about kids who push boundaries can have strong appeal. But having regular conversations during which you reinforce your position on alcohol safety can help them exercise good judgment.

Since we talk so openly, my teens talk to me and tell me a lot of what they and/or their friends are doing,” says G.H. “I know which friends use drugs/alcohol, and I feel overly protective when my teens are with those friends. But I also feel somewhat powerless because I know they will keep things from me if I never allow them to see these friends.”

S.P. in Bergen County agrees that she can’t control who her kids choose to associate with all the time. “I just try to trust that they will make smart decisions for themselves.”

The kids want to be liked,” says Bromfeld. “I tell my kids they are in complete control. With daughters, it can be different. I talk about the reality of never wanting to wake up in the morning and not know what happened. It’s very frightening. They need to be in control of the situation and their bodies. I tell them to stand up and advocate for themselves. Don’t apologize for your feelings.”

Monkey See, Monkey Do

How can you preach responsible drinking if you exhibit the opposite behavior? J.K. of Ocean County says you can’t be hypocritical with alcohol and drugs. S.T. of Morris County doesn’t preach prevention, but she does discuss moderation. H.B. of Monmouth County says it’s a conscious choice to become intoxicated in front of your children.

Bromfeld says parents must reflect on their own drinking behaviors and ensure they are being responsible. “Parents can measure alcohol in front of their children and explain why they are doing so: to learn a standard drink and why to limit drinking. Parents can offer water, other non-alcoholic beverages and food to their adult friends when hosting in their homes. They can discuss making sure they have a non-drinking driver in front of their teens so the teens learn to plan ahead for a safe ride home. I try to give my kids tools and set them free in the world.”

Bromfeld then said something that triggered me. He said to make the distinction between wants and needs. “If a mom comes home from work after a stressful day, opens a bottle and says, ‘I NEED a drink,’ that is teaching kids to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.” I have definitely done that myself, and now I will be more careful.

Safe Driving

Establishing a transportation plan beforehand is imperative. “My boys have emergency phone friends,” says S.G. of Essex County. “We established two guys who we literally trust with our kids’ lives and told our boys that if they’re ever in a situation where they need help and don’t want to call us, they can call these men who have agreed to help without questions, consequences and without telling us, unless the kid agrees or the adult feels it’s important. That was actually an essential piece of our drug and alcohol strategy for our kids. I highly recommend it.”

M.H. of Morris County has observed something that makes her uncomfortable. “I have been at social gatherings with other adults who are drinking,” she says. “I have seen some of these adults not only go to pick their own kids up from wherever they were, but also take other people’s kids too.”

H.B. of Monmouth County adds: “I hope that my daughter has learned to be responsible and that there’s never a situation where we would judge if she reached out for help, like getting her or her friends home safely. I hope she can recognize when a situation is becoming impossible to control.” 

Preventionist Message

How can preventionists counteract underage drinking when parents are condoning it? “Make sure parents know that those who host lose the most, even if they still believe it’s safer for their kids to drink at home in more of a controlled situation,” says Bromfeld. “The best prevention programs are the ones based on sound science and that are tested repeatedly to prove they are effective. Preventionists must update their language and lexicon on a regular basis to keep up with today’s teens and young adults. Preventionists must also, where appropriate, reach teens on the platforms where they spend time. They must also influence the kids’ parents and caregivers to reinforce the prevention messages given that parents are the greatest influence over a teen’s decision to drink–or not to drink–alcohol.”

So What’s the Solution?

It’s very difficult to draw the line between being a cool parent versus a responsible parent. In some cases, adults allow their desire to be their child’s friend eclipse their role as a parent. There really is no right answer. It’s a personal choice based the individual’s personal experience and background. The best you can do is to go with your gut, be vigilant and aware, and familiarize yourself with the law [N.J.S.A. 2C:33-17(a) and 2C:33-15] and your town’s related social-hosting ordinances.

“The challenges we face as parents no one has told us about,” says L.L. of Boston. “I try not to make drinking taboo, but also make my son realize that it’s illegal. He’s open with me about drinking, as I have told him I won’t judge so long as he’s honest. Take an Uber, stay in control and know your limit. I don’t know if he ever follows my advice, but I hope he does. It’s a struggle between wanting your kid to be honest and responsible versus what he’s doing is illegal.”

Finally, it’s important to simply be informed. Bromfeld believes most parents who allow their kids to drink at home with friends are well-meaning and just want to keep their kids safe. “Yet, they’re under a false sense of comfort,” he adds. “While some states allow parents to provide alcohol to their own children, there are strong social-hosting laws in this country which prevent providing alcohol to underage kids and can get adults in legal hot water. Underage drinking is inherently risky, hence why the laws exist. Bottom line: Parents must have repeated conversations about alcohol with their kids.”

Photo by Monstera Production

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