By invitation, I recently spoke to a group of high school parents at Ladue’s John Burroughs School. In a seminar format, we discussed typical versus troubled teen behavior. Although the presentation covered valuable information related to peer relationships and mental health, though, the topic the parents there seemed most interested in better understanding was alcohol use by teenagers.
Teens often drink for a variety of reasons – peer pressure, amusement and, in some glum situations, self-medication. Sad to say, experimenting with so-called adult beverages often constitutes a common part of adolescent development. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, in fact, more than 85 percent of high school students have tried alcohol. So, parents, it’s reasonable to assume that your child will be offered a beer at some point – and it’s equally reasonable to assume that, at some point, your child will accept such an offer.
To ensure teens’ safety, have regular conversations about substance use with them. Listen to their views, and share your thoughts. Parents do have the power to influence their children’s values. When mom and dad regularly send the message that they disapprove of underage drinking, they raise teenagers who are less likely to abuse alcohol both in the present and in the future.
Because teen drinking has grown so prevalent in our society, some families, unfortunately, do allow underage alcohol consumption in their homes. These parents often believe that supervised consumption limits the number of beverages consumed – a somewhat difficult argument to disprove. However, teens who drink at home also more likely drink outside the home and more likely binge-drink than children of parents with a zero-tolerance policy.
Need another reason to discourage teen drinking? In addition to compromised thinking, loss of inhibition and poor in-the-moment decisions, alcohol causes long-term consequences for the developing teen brain. More specifically, it damages the region of the brain that controls learning, attention and decision-making. Also, excessive alcohol use during adolescence permanently damages a teen’s memory and thinking. Nothing good comes from mixing alcohol and teens.
To help keep your own teens on a healthy path, parents, appropriately monitor their social lives. Know where they are, know who they’re with, be awake when they arrive home and have clear expectations. Kids avoid drinking primarily because of parental boundaries. If your child does choose to drink, however, he or she should recognize the most important rule of all: Never drink and drive.
The sad reality of underage drinking is hard to avoid. Scaring your children into compliance never makes an effective strategy to curb any behavior. In fact, warm, caring two-way conversation constitutes the best approach to proactively protect your children against problematic alcohol use. How you and your spouse discuss this sensitive topic now will positively influence your children in the moment – and long after their teen years have ended. [LN dingbat]
Prior to going into private practice as a psychotherapist and learning-disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.A., LPC, NCC, worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com.