Teens and Alcohol — A Volatile Mix

Family Counseling Insights brought to you by Patricia McTague-Loft

Like it not, and whether you personally drink alcohol or not, the presence of alcohol is virtually unavoidable. In advertising, in TV shows and movies, not to mention in real-life social situations, alcohol in all its various forms surrounds us. Factor in the holidays with people making toasts at dinner parties and office celebrations, and you have a culture of alcohol consumption.

If you have teenage children, the subject is an important one. Whether parents confront the issue directly or not, they have a choice to make: whether to strictly prohibit their kids from drinking alcohol in any amount, or allowing them to taste it at a certain age. That’s not an easy decision, and well-meaning parents fall on both sides of the issue.

Writing for HuffPost.com, Marie Holmes tells the story of a mom who “was introduced to alcohol via ‘teeny tiny glasses of wine at Shabbat.’ She followed this same practice with her own kids starting when they were in high school.” That turned out to be what seems like a success story. Her kids are now in college and think that “getting drunk at school isn’t that exciting.”

But Holmes then goes on to tell a different story about Jessica Lahey, a mother of two teens. She allowed the older to sip alcohol, but by the time the younger child was at the age when she allowed the sipping to begin, Lahey realized that she herself had a drinking problem and had entered recovery. Her journey led her to write a book, “The Addiction Inoculation.”

Holmes goes on to cite the research and statistics Lahey uncovered as she wrote her book. A key insight is that the younger a person is when they are allowed a first drink, the greater the chance of developing an alcohol problem. Quoting Lahey, Homes writes, ““A kid who has their first drink in eighth grade, they have an almost 50% lifelong risk of developing substance use disorder. If it’s pushed by two years, into 10th grade, it drops by half, and if it’s pushed by another two years until they’re 18, it drops again by half — and at that point, we’re down to just about the national average for people with substance use disorder… One national study of more than 42,000 people found that those who drank before age 14 had a 45% risk of developing substance use disorder, and this risk went down to 10% for those who waited until turning 21 to drink.”

There are many reasons that parents choose to allow their kids to drink as teens. One is that they believe they’re going to drink with their friends or at a party anyway, so they’d rather have them experience it in a controlled environment — their home — than with a group. On the surface this makes some sense, but the basic premise needs to be examined — “they’re going to drink anyway.” Actually, research reveals that “42.9% of the 12th graders reported having ever been drunk.” Flip that around, though, and that means 57 percent of 12th graders have never gotten drunk — so in fact not everybody is going to drink to excess.

Holmes goes on to cite Lahey’s discussion of some commonly held beliefs. For example, many people point to Europeans’ supposed responsible introduction of moderate alcohol use to their kids. Dig into the statistics, though, and Lahey states that “The European Union as a whole has not only the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world but deaths attributable to alcohol.”

At this holiday season, the subject of teen drinking deserves some careful consideration. Read Holmes’ full article here for further insights.