As we move into the holiday party season, parents who want to insulate their teenagers from the risks associated with drinking alcohol are faced with some difficult dilemmas, which I’ve grouped here into four categories: laws, limits, lies and learner-drivers.
Most areas have their own local or state laws in place aimed at regulating the age of those who undertake certain activities. Examples include drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking and sex. The problem is that laws don’t always neatly match up with societal attitudes and realities. Another issue is that not everyone is aware of or up to date with the current legal implications of their actions.
As a result, parents may be unsure of what to do, especially if their teenager asks them to overlook or actively take part in a less-then-strict application of these laws. Depending on where you live, having a beer or a glass of wine with a family meal may not actually break any law, but it sends a mixed message to a teenager if they’re not yet old enough to drink in a public venue. “You mean I can have a drink here, but not in a restaurant?”
Parents may justify this by believing they are controlling the activity. But all too often, when presented with the temptation of an unlocked drinks cupboard, a teenager may start unauthorized drinking when parents aren’t at home, on the basis that they’ve been allowed to drink at home previously.
Some parents will prefer to provide their teenager with a limited amount of alcohol to go to a party or event, in the hope that this will prevent excess consumption that could lead to more serious negative outcomes. Others choose to stick to the letter of the law and prohibit alcohol consumption until the legal age is reached. Certainly there is evidence that there are benefits in delaying any consumption of alcohol until late adolescence or even early adulthood. However, there is a competing view that introducing teenagers to alcohol in a controlled family environment is a realistic recognition of the pervasive influence of alcohol in our societies. There is no magical answer to this dilemma, and each parent and family have to make their own informed choice.
One way to prepare teenagers for possible risky situations is to identify scenarios where this kind of thing might occur, and then have them rehearse responses designed to avoid or reduce the risk. For example, a parent might be concerned that, under peer pressure, their teenager could be tempted to leave a school dance where you’d dropped them off and go to a party you don’t even know about. What could the teenager be encouraged to do or say, in order to reject the invitation without losing their friends? It can be surprising to some parents to learn that their teenager may be happy to have an excuse to not party, and that parental strictness can be offered as an explanation. But should they go so far as to say something like their parents are tracking them electronically to check where they are, if this is untrue?
Because the age at which teenagers may start to experiment with alcohol often coincides with the age at which they first get behind the wheel of a car, or their friends or older siblings do, there are some key safety messages to impart. Provide factual information about the effects of blood alcohol concentration on reflexes and reaction times. Help them understand that alcohol impairs a person’s ability to make accurate assessments of their own and others’ capacity to drive safely. And explain to them that blood alcohol levels can lag well behind consumption: in other words, a drink at, say, 8.20pm may only begin to take effect anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours later, depending on a variety of factors such as what else was in the stomach at the time.
WHAT HAVE THEY ALL GOT IN COMMON?
The key issues for parents that link these dilemmas are:
- The need for open and honest communication between parent and teenager, with a clear focus on the negative outcomes they are trying to prevent.
- The importance of explaining values you want to pass on to your teenagers, even in the context of the rapid social changes.
- The need to avoid making false assumptions about what your teenager would or wouldn’t do in a given situation.
- The need to negotiate appropriate supervision strategies that are not intrusive but allow teenagers’ behavior to be monitored.
- The need to create regular opportunities for family conversations where you can talk freely about both lighthearted and serious topics, including all of the above, not as a one-off discussion but on an ongoing basis.
This may well be one of the most challenging aspects of managing the transition from child to adult, for both the parent and the teenager. If you feel that you’d like some extra support, remember that you’re not alone and help is available.