Underage Drinking: A Primer for Parents

In 2007 in upstate New York, an “after party” for the local high school’s senior prom at which the adult homeowner served alcohol to underage drinkers ended up with one teen dead and another imprisoned for vehicular manslaughter. A life was lost and other lives were forever changed by this terrible event: instead of attending their friend’s graduation, teens were attending a funeral. Instead of going away to college, the deceased’s best friend went to jail on a felony charge. In 2008, the county where this tragedy occurred enacted a “social host” law, rendering the serving of alcohol to those under the legal drinking age in a private home illegal. The local high school now offers an all-night “after party” of its own, aimed at preventing such a tragedy from happening again. Both sets of parents have had their lives profoundly impacted by underage drinking and neither family will ever be the same. What can parents learn and change in their own families to address the sad reality that underage drinking occurs, with the very real potential for life-changing results?

Understanding Your Teen

Before you sit your teen down to have the talk with him or her about underage drinking, reflect for a moment on just who teens are and how they operate. Adolescence is a developmental phase with very specific pros and cons:

  • Intensity of emotions and passionately argued convictions are the norm.
  • Friends (and friendships can be very rapidly made and unmade) are paramount, and connections to a social group may be more important that anything else during early to middle adolescence. Later, the rapidly shifting nature of friendships matures into deeper and more lasting connections.
  • The importance of intimacy and the development of a significant romantic relationship often takes over as paramount in later adolescence.
  • In psychological theory, identity formation is the key task during this life stage. In the context of a family, this often means rejecting parents and their values in order to form a sense of self, away from parental influence. To put that even more simply: teens become allergic to parental influence, limits, rules, and structures.
  • Intellectual development during this phase takes off by leaps and bounds, and many teens become expert in arguing and splitting hairs, finding loopholes and caveats in the word of the “law,” and conveniently ignoring the spirit of any law to which they might be subjected.

All this adds up to become a very difficult young person for whom you, as a parent, must set limits. Having some understanding and savvy in teen culture will help you anticipate and deal with any resistance (or faux resistance) you may encounter.

Explain Once, Don’t Nag

This is a case of “less is more.” Be clear with your teen about what you expect and then don’t repeat yourself and don’t nag. This is basic advice for pretty much any situation: curfew, homework/grades, or any illegal activity. Tell your teen what you expect and require when you are sure they are listening to you (i.e., you might have to insist that they put the video game down, pull the earbuds out, and turn off their phone), and recheck for understanding, once. Then drop it. Trust your child that they heard you and they got it. They may need to act as if they don’t care and won’t respect your limits, but you don’t need to fight that particular battle during this conversation. Say your piece and then stop talking.

Content and Consequences

When you talk with your teen, relay facts, and do your best not to get emotional (i.e. angry), and don’t exaggerate. Explain why you are setting whatever limit you are setting (for example, no drinking at all until you are legal; no hanging out with friends at your home when you are not home) and back that limit up with facts. Help your child understand the consequences they face if they fail to respect your limits. Set consequences that are fair, graduated (i.e. first offense and third offense should carry the same consequence), and enforceable. Don’t threaten to do anything you unless you feel ready and willing to follow through-this is key.

Make it Real

Help your teen understand what they will face from the law if they get caught. Explain the process of receiving an alcohol-related moving violation for someone their age. Make it real for them in terms of things they understand and care about: legal fees could wipe out thoughts of college, for example, and friendships could be lost. The limits placed on a driver’s license are tantamount to house arrest-driving to work and school is often the limit of a restricted license. Do not threaten them or get histrionic, and be ready to back up any claim you make with facts and laws.

Be Home and Be Available

To the extent that you are able, be available as the “party house” for your teen. Do not allow alcohol or drugs at your home but make your home the fun place to be in other ways. Invite your teen to bring people home and stay home when they have friends over. Similarly, especially with younger teens, drop them off at friends’ homes yourself, and shake hands with their parents before you leave. Lastly, be ready to shift these rules as your teens move through this stage and away from you, whether that means they are leaving for college, the military, or other life experiences. They stop being your legal responsibility long before they become true “adults.” Your role will change as they grow and develop, and you may find that they end up wanting to share that first legal drink with you!

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