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Underage Drinking: A Guide for Parents 

The Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) has been receiving an increasing number of calls from lawyers who are struggling with their tween, teen, or young adult children’s substance abuse problems. The LAP provides assistance in these circumstances and regularly guides lawyers from the intervention process through treatment and aftercare. The LAP can recommend effective treatment centers for the age, gender, and drug of choice of the child in question, and can assist the lawyer in getting help for himself or herself and the family while the child is in treatment and after the child returns home. One of our LAP volunteers feels passionately about helping other families identify the signs and symptoms in children early on, and offering suggestions for parents about how to address the issue with children. The purpose of this article is to offer some thoughts and guidance for parents in order that they might catch the problem earlier in the process.

As summer approaches, our children are participating in formal and informal events to celebrate the end of school and approaching adulthood. These events frequently involve the abuse of alcohol and, too often, result in incidents with permanent or fatal consequences.

Parents spend inordinate amounts of time and money protecting our children from dangers, sending them to the best schools we can afford, buying them lessons and opportunities to enrich their lives, and doing other things to give them the best chance possible to be safe, to succeed, and to be happy.

When it comes to underage drinking by our 14 to 20 year olds, however, many of us do very little or nothing, even though abusive drinking by our children is a real threat—maybe the largest threat—to our dreams for them. In fact, many parents allow or condone unhealthy drinking among their teenagers and their friends. What can we do to change our thinking about and approach to underage and inappropriate drinking?

The first step is to discredit some common beliefs.

It’s Just a Little Drinking, How Bad Can It Be?

The line between “enough” and “too much” is a blurry one for middle-aged adults; a novice drinker almost certainly does not know it. Judgment and cognitive reasoning are impaired in young drinkers after only a small amount of alcohol consumption. And we have all seen the results too frequently.

Physical injury and death are at the top of the list. Legal problems are common. But there is more. Future employers, universities, and licensing agencies often will deny admission, jobs, and credentials to those convicted of alcohol-related crimes, preventing our children from going to college, and from participating in a number of desired professions. Unwanted pregnancies and related consequences of irresponsible sexual behavior undeniably disturb progress for both boys and girls. And the guilt and shame that follow alcohol-induced bad behavior can linger for years or a lifetime.

Equally important is the risk of alcohol and substance abuse problems later in life. There is a robust association between the age of an adolescent’s first drink and the risk of alcohol abuse disorders over his or her lifetime. Simply put, the longer a teen puts off their initiation to alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop a problem with alcohol. In addition, the areas of the brain governing judgment, self-control, and emotional regulation are among the last to develop. One can easily see why waiting until these areas are more developed could be protective in regards to alcohol abuse.

All Kids Do It

One of the most common myths about underage drinking, and the one cited by many parents as a reason for their inaction regarding alcohol use by their children, is “All kids do it.” This simply is not true.

Recently, Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) published a report indicating that 50% of high school students consumed alcohol in the preceding 30 days. In SADD’s view this is a very high number, considering that underage drinking is an illegal activity that carries significant penalties. But, more importantly for those parents and teenagers that believe drinking is “inevitable” for young people, this statistic shows that a large number of teenagers did not use alcohol in the preceding month. My experience is similar; I have found that in Raleigh a large number of teenagers do not drink at all.

While it may appear to be the case, not “everyone” is doing it. In any event, following the dangerous behavior of others has never been a justification for any action or inaction.

If They Can Fight a War, They Should Be Able to Drink

Drinking is illegal for children under the age of 21. When we allow or condone underage drinking, we are choosing to violate or encourage the violation of a law with which we disagree. Thus, a more honest way for a parent to state this argument is as follows: “I disagree with the laws related to drinking, and so neither I nor my children should have to abide by them.”

This is a horrible message to teenagers. Are they always allowed to break laws with which they do not agree? Which laws are right and which are wrong? Does it apply to other moral tenets? Who decides? What kind of society would we have if everyone only followed the laws with which they agree? Teenagers are smart and follow our lead in this area; the outcomes of their decisions regarding this issue often are tragic. Responsible parents cannot condone this type of behavior and thinking.

A related issue is parents who allow underage drinking in their homes. Clearly, allowing one’s own children to drink at home is a decision with which I don’t agree. It is one thing to allow your own children to drink at home; it is quite another to allow other children to drink at your home. A person who encourages and allows another’s child to break a law that could cause the child harm arrogantly appropriates the parental authority of others. While I may be a strict and unreasonable parent, the idea that another parent would undermine my parenting decisions in such a manner is simply unacceptable. Good parents should not, in my opinion, tolerate it.

Teenagers Need an Opportunity to Learn to Drink Responsibly

I agree wholly with this sentiment. The problem, however, arises in the prevailing view of what constitutes “responsible drinking.”

In my opinion, “responsible drinking” is drinking that is unlikely to cause significant adverse consequences. Responsible drinking is not defined as the “average level of drinking of our peers,” and it may vary for each individual. Underage drinking, like no other activity in which our children engage, carries a significant risk of creating impediments to future success and happiness. In only very limited circumstances can underage drinking be considered responsible.

Even if an argument can be made that underage teenagers should be permitted to drink despite the current laws, frequently these children drink to excess; that is, they drink irresponsibly. When thinking about how much is too much, consider this: How much Coke would our children have to drink at one sitting before we thought it strange or too much? Three 12-ounce cans? Four? Six? Certainly we would discourage, or even prohibit, a child from drinking a six-pack of Coke at one sitting, and we would likely consider professional help for a child who devoured a 12-pack in a short time period. Why do we treat alcohol differently? Certainly there is less danger in the Coke than in the same amount of Budweiser.

But I Don’t Know What to Do

Many parents who desire to eliminate underage drinking in their homes are at a loss about what actions to take. Here are some with which to start.

Get Honest and Become Willing

Alcohol abuse is a condition of denial. The person who is abusing alcohol denies it, and the person who lives with the alcohol abuser denies the nature or severity of it. Honesty about the existence and nature of the problem is critical—when we name it and admit it to ourselves, then we can take action to address it.

The first step to addressing underage drinking is to determine whether a child has an alcohol abuse problem (which by definition means that he or she is drinking underage). Many parents already know; an unsure parent needs to know. The best way to find out is simply to ask—a child will in most circumstances provide an honest answer to an honest question. If he or she refuses to answer, a parent can assume he or she is drinking. Some children lie; we need to use our best judgment.

Knowing that our child has a problem is not the same as honesty about it. Many parents know their child has a problem, but deny it to themselves because admitting it would require action that may be unpleasant or unfamiliar. Honesty requires eliminating the denial, and admitting the problem to ourselves.

Once we are honest that a problem exists, the next step is to undertake a willingness to address the problem. Honesty about the problem without willingness to take action will accomplish very little.

Once we have honesty and willingness, there are a few steps that are simple to take to help our children refrain from drinking irresponsibly. These actions may not always work, but if nothing changes, then nothing changes.

The First Steps

First, a responsible parent should not ever purchase alcohol for an underage child, let a child drink in their proximity, provide him and his friends a safe-haven for drinking, or condone this behavior by the child’s friends or the parents of the child’s friends, and should have a discussion with other parents making that clear. These are very simple steps and are absolutes. A parent cannot be serious about curbing alcohol abuse without implementing these very simple measures.

Next Steps

The next three steps are simple, but probably not too obvious. First, parents must refrain from drinking any alcoholic beverages around their children while they are between the ages of 15 and 20. It is impossible to encourage a child to change his or her drinking habits with a glass of Chardonnay in your hand. Children watch us and, when parents drink too much, the children are likely to do it, too. Find some parents of your child’s friends who are willing to join you in this effort as it makes it easier. Those parents who will not change their drinking habits for a little while to help protect their or your children…well, that is a problem for another article.

Second, money is the fuel of alcohol and substance abuse. Children cannot go to the beach drinking for a week, buy beer, wine, or marijuana or other drugs, drive fancy cars, or go on wildly expensive prom dates, unless they have money. Stop giving it to them! Just stop, and ask their grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles to stop as well. Easy cash is a huge part of the problem. A debit card with a very low balance works for their standard needs, and provides a record of where they are spending their money. How much will they drink if they don’t have any pocket money or they have to choose between drinking and a new iPod or cell phone?

Third, always know where your children are and whether they are sober. It is unacceptable to pass our parenting duties to the parent down the street who is out of town or likely to allow the kids to drink at her house. Try the “four-hour rule,” under which a child may not stay out of contact with his or her parents for more than four hours. Also, consider prohibiting overnight stays at the homes of other children; overnight stays at your house are fine. Wait up for your children at night, every night, and make sure that they meet a sober parent when they arrive home.

These measures cost nothing, but will probably save you money. They don’t require a counselor and they can be implemented immediately. I suggest a loving discussion about these changes with your teenage child. It will be much easier if these rules are in place before your children become teenagers, but if not, help them understand that these changes are done out of love and concern for their welfare.

The Really Hard, but Necessary, Steps

The family and outside counseling play important roles.

A teenage child who does not drink in this culture can be very lonely. As drinking friends disappear, it is important to replace them with supporting and loving people. It is critical for parents to provide company and support to their teenager who is alone because he or she is doing the right thing. This means more than providing frozen pizza on Saturday night before parents go out to dinner with their friends. It means actively providing alcohol-free events and entertainment for their child. It means encouraging and rewarding good behavior. It means focusing on the child’s needs almost exclusively—just for a little while until the new way of life sets in. Healthy discussions about alcohol and feelings will occur during these events without a lot of effort—angry and unlikable children often will become easier to handle as well. Without parental support, it will be difficult for a child to accomplish a change in drinking habits.

Finally, alcohol abuse is a family problem, that is, it arises from the behavior of the family as a system. Accordingly, it is important for the members of a family with a teenager who abuses alcohol to get some professional help from counselors or therapists, with two caveats. First, I believe that a counselor in these matters should have extensive experience with substance abuse issues, or even be a recovered alcoholic. And second, an hour a week with a counselor will not provide the kind of change that is required. Daily willingness to make changes to accomplish this important goal is the only way that it will happen. For parents who have a child in active addiction of any form, it is imperative to attend some kind of week-long family program with Al-Anon support to follow in order to best help the child recover.

We Are Not Helpless!

Parents spend a lot of time, effort, money, and energy to keep our children safe. Alcohol abuse during late teens is a common source of injury and agony, and our society seems to condone and endorse it more and more. We are not helpless in preventing it. Please consider the steps outlined above to eliminate underage drinking from your home and to ensure a bright future for your children.

– By Bill Bost

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers, judges, and law students, which helps address problems of stress, depression, alcoholism, addiction, or other problems that may lead to impairing a lawyer’s ability to practice. If you would like more information, go to nclap.org or call: Cathy Killian (for Charlotte and areas west) at 704-910-2310, Towanda Garner (in the Piedmont area) at 919-719-9290, or Tony Porrett (for Raleigh and down east) at 919-719-9267.

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