Some people ask, “What’s the big deal about underage drinking?” While some parents and adults may feel relieved that their teen is “only” drinking, it is important to remember that alcohol is a powerful, mood-altering drug. Not only does alcohol affect the mind and body in negative and unexpected ways, teens lack the judgment and coping skills to handle alcohol wisely because the areas of their brains that control these functions are still developing.
In Eau Claire County, a majority of adults think that underage drinking is a serious problem, and most youth report that their parents disapprove of teen drinking. Yet many parents will be asked and tempted to host underage drinking parties, believing that in doing so, they somehow keep their kids safe. Research shows otherwise. Teens whose parents or friends’ parents provide alcohol for them are much more likely to engage in heavier drinking, to drink more often, and to get into traffic accidents. This year, the 2017 “Parents Who Host Lose the Most: Don’t Be a Party to Underage Drinking” campaign is aimed at supporting parents and other adults in keeping their kids safe, healthy, and alcohol-free.
Most adults know that hosting underage drinking parties is illegal; however, many mistakenly believe that the consequences are not severe. But attempting to be the “cool parent,” and providing alcohol at a teen gathering, can cost you. This time of year, parents are alerted to the fact that underage drinking isn’t a “grey area” of the law. It is illegal to purchase, pour, or provide alcohol to a person under the age of 21 who isn’t your own child or spouse. According to the law, other parents can’t give you “permission” to serve their kids alcohol, and if you do, the liability and legal penalties fall on you. Most importantly, it places the health and safety of young people at risk.
Teens and Alcohol: What’s the big deal?
Experimenting with alcohol often begins before high school. In Eau Claire County, kids start drinking alcohol at an average age of 13 – during their middle school years. This is why parents need to talk with their kids about alcohol use at a much earlier age and to make expectations about alcohol use clear. Experts now suggest that starting to talk to kids when they’re 8 or 9 is a good idea. That’s in third or fourth grade.
We know innocent experimentation can have grave consequences. Children who start drinking at a young age are more likely to have problems with alcohol later in life. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a child who begins drinking before age 15 is seven times more likely to abuse alcohol or to have problems with alcohol as an adult. As a parent or caring adult in a young person’s life, you have a powerful influence. A conversation about alcohol now can be enough to stop a child from making a decision that could potentially harm his or her health and future.
Young brains are wired far more easily for addiction. After alcohol stimulates the brain’s pleasure center, young brains more quickly develop tolerance, requiring more and more alcohol to produce the same effect. Compared to adults, young people are more likely to move from liking, to wanting, to needing alcohol, setting them up for addiction.
What can we do to keep kids healthy and safe?
Talk! A parent’s strong disapproval is the No. 1 reason kids choose not to drink. Short, frequent discussions can have a real impact on your child’s decisions about alcohol. In fact, the reason most children choose not to drink is because their parents talked to them about it. Talking to your kids at an early age is best. As kids get older, the pressure to experiment with alcohol increases and continuing the conversations will be important. If kids don’t hear from their parents soon enough about alcohol, the opportunity to experiment will come and the kids will enter the situation without firm parental guidance. If you talk to them directly and honestly, they are more likely to respect your rules and heed your advice about alcohol use.
Monitor your kids and your alcohol. Take time to get to know your child’s friends and ask about what they do when they’re together. Be there to supervise all youth gatherings and hangouts at your home, and talk about your rules and expectations. Confirm the plans for parties that your teen is attending – be sure there is a supervising adult and that alcohol will not be brought or offered. Confirming your teen’s plans does not make you an untrusting parent: It means you’re doing your job as a parent and keeping kids safe. Don’t forget to monitor the alcohol supply in your home and be aware if any goes missing.
Follow the law and enforce the rules. Don’t provide alcohol to underage drinkers or allow anyone under 21 to drink in your home or on your property. If your child breaks the law and drinks alcohol against your wishes, enforce consequences and continue to make your expectations clear. Keep the conversation going about how important you feel it is for them to not drink and why you are concerned about it.
If the thought of talking to your child about alcohol use makes you want to run the other way, you are not alone! Conversations about things such as drugs and alcohol can no doubt be difficult to have with kids. But take comfort in knowing that talking often with your child helps build an open, trusting relationship. Frequent and short talks make it easier for both kids and parents, and are more effective than one “big talk.” Take the pressure off a bit and find natural opportunities to talk about drugs and alcohol. Things seen on the news or in movies can be good conversation starters, or something you hear on the radio as you’re dropping your child off at school. Keep those conversations going and reinforce your expectations about alcohol use and your disapproval of using alcohol before age 21.
START THE CONVERSATION
For tools to start the conversation about underage drinking with your kids, go to getinvolvedASAP.org. To join others who are working to reduce underage drinking in our community, contact Rachael Manning at the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (715) 839-5091.