The expression “little kids, little problems…big kids, big problems” is often used among parents for good reason. Teaching children to play well with others, potty training, and bedtime battles pale in comparison to the anxiety-inducing stressors of the teenage years. That’s when the worries become serious, as in safety behind the wheel, steering clear of drugs, and avoiding unprotected sex, to name a few.
One of the biggest challenges is how to handle underage drinking. One school of thought is that kids should be told to stay away from alcohol until they are 21 and legal. (And good luck with that approach.) Another way to approach drinking is to allow it in the presence of parents or other adults, who will ostensibly keep things from getting out of control. But is one of these tactics actually better than the other?
There is a recent study that says yes: and surprisingly, the study concludes that it is definitely better to keep teenagers away from alcohol rather than permit them to drink it at home. The research, which took place at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, found that the teenagers who drink at home under adult supervision have a greater risk of becoming problem drinkers than those who do not drink at home.1
The study focused on 1,945 children in seventh grade from Victoria, Australia, and the state of Washington. Every year for three years, the scientists provided the subjects with questionnaires about their drinking habits. There were specific questions included about how frequently the teenagers drank alcohol with family members at dinner or during a holiday meal. The volunteers were also asked about certain alcohol-related difficulties, such as vomiting, passing out, becoming violent, blacking out, and having a regrettable sexual encounter.
When they were in eighth grade, the Australian participants were nearly twice as likely as American kids to drink at home with their parents present (66 percent of Australian teens to 35 percent of American teens). And, correspondingly, there were close to twice as many Australians who reported the negative behaviors associated with drinking (36 percent of Australians versus 21 percent of Americans).
Not only does becoming comfortable with drinking alcohol seem to lead to a number of destructive consequences in teenagers, but there is plenty of evidence from previous studies that children are at a much higher risk of becoming alcoholics than adults when they begin drinking before the age of 15. And, although no one knows the precise age at which it happens, it is also believed that the human brain does not stop developing until some time in our 20s, which means alcohol consumption can have much more serious effects on a teenager, including long-term memory problems.
Research recently performed at Loyola University in Chicago found that binge drinking during the teen years increases vulnerability to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety later in life too.2 As part of this study, scientists injected young rats with enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol levels to at least 0.15 percent for three days in a row, gave them two days off, then followed up with another three-day dosing. A few weeks later, when the rats reached adulthood, the researchers discovered the now-mature rats had altered baseline levels of stress hormones, leaving them more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
Certainly rats and people are not the same. But considering that a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found that 36 percent of teens between the ages of 18 and 20 had indulged in at least one binge-drinking episode in the 30 days preceding being questioned, these are worrisome findings. This is especially concerning since teenagers are not known for thinking about the future consequences of many of their actions.
So what’s a responsible parent to do? Beyond not allowing teens to drink in your presence and modeling alcohol moderation yourself, there’s really not much you can do. As the old saying goes, “Environment is stronger than will.” And teens’ peers often create an environment conducive to experimentation and overindulgence. You can try to keep the lines of communication open, let them know you will pick them up if they or their designated driver has been drinking, and try to warn them of the risks involved. But in truth, if you hope to have a chance, you need to have done the heavy lifting before your kids become teens — instilling in them during childhood the elements of character and self-discipline they will need to navigate their teen years. Once they are out in the world, your work is pretty much done, and you may just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.
1 McMorris, Barbara J.; Catalano, Richard F.; Kim, et al. “Influence of Family Factors and Supervised Alcohol Use on Adolescent Alcohol Use and Harms: Similarities Between Youth in Different Alcohol Policy Contexts.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. May 2011. Rutgers University. 25 May 2011. <http://www.jsad.com/jsad/article/Influence_of_Family_Factors_and_Supervised_Alcohol_Use_on_Adolescent_Alcoho/4573.html>.
2 Przybycien, M.M.; Gillespie, R.; Pak, T.R. “Peripubertal Binge-Pattern Ethanol Exposure has Long-Term Effects on HPA Axis Reactivity in Adulthood.” 40th Annual Meeting Neuroscience 2010. November 2010. Coe-Truman Technologies, Inc. 26 May 2011. <http://www.abstractsonline.com/Plan/ViewAbstract.aspx?sKey=aa3c7f46-bfc9-4483-85a9-2c4f6b058a15&cKey=e720e3c8-4317-4630-9ea4-a360d7a03db1&mKey=%7bE5D5C83F-CE2D-4D71-9DD6-FC7231E090FB%7d>.