Teenage Drinking

In response to last week’s entry about teenage depression, parents from around the country sent me questions about their adolescent children. The most common question was how to handle their teenage child’s budding relationship with alcohol.

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In response to last week’s entry about teenage depression, parents from around the country sent me questions about their adolescent children. The most common question was how to handle their teenage child’s budding relationship with alcohol.

Some of these parents said they allowed their teenagers to drink alcohol in moderation and in their presence. In their minds they were teaching their children to develop a “healthy relationship” with a mind and mood-altering drug.

Other parents strictly prohibited teenage drinking. For these parents, alcohol is something their children can and should live without.

What is important about both of these positions is that they recognize the powerful role alcohol plays in our family’s lives. We must never forget that substance abuse and alcoholism is a family disease. When one family member suffers, everyone suffers. No one is immune. No one escapes unscathed.

It’s also important to admit and accept that alcohol is very present in our world and our children will be confronted much sooner than later with the decision of whether or not to drink.  

This reality was alarmingly made through a new study commissioned by the Caron Treatment Centers. From a survey of over 1,000 adolescents, the people at Caron obtained the following facts:

  • Four out of 10 of the adolescents surveyed admitted to drinking alcohol and felt it was “okay” for people under 21 to drink alcohol. (For these kids, alcohol consumption was “no big deal.”)
  • Fourteen was the average age when these adolescents had their first drink. (Yes, that’s right, 14 years of age).
  • As a result of drinking alcohol, 4 out of 10 said that they engaged in harmful or illegal activity. (This included unsafe sexual acts and other risky physical behavior).
  • 32% of these teens learned from their parents that drinking alcohol was a perfectly acceptable way to manage stress. (Our kids learn from what we do more than from what we say).
  • Nearly 60% of the adolescents surveyed felt their parents were more concerned with their grades than with their alcohol consumption. (Ouch, this one hurts. We seem to be placing more importance on external and material success than on our children’s emotional well-being).

So what does this all mean? It means we need to do a better job of handling alcohol in our families.

First of all, it’s not okay for our adolescent children to drink even if supervised and even if in moderation. The adolescent brain is a developing brain. Putting alcohol into that brain is like shooting a bucking bronco with an electric shock. There is no legitimate reason to do it.

Second, we must do a better job as parents to model healthy emotional regulation and coping skills for our children. Drinking alcohol to manage stress and other uncomfortable emotions has no place in this skill set. We need to teach our kids to handle uncomfortable emotions in supportive relationships- not through quick, outside fixes with substances or things.

Third, we must remember that alcohol consumption in the family does not occur in isolation. When one family member drinks, even “responsibly,” each and every family member learns something and is affected.

Parents are responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of their children. Central to this care is helping them develop healthy coping skills, a strong sense of who they are and what value they can add to the world. While alcohol consumption is certainly a part of our society and culture, it needn’t be part that erodes the integrity of your family or limits your child’s growth.

Blog written by Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD
Paul Hokemeyer is a licensed attorney, researcher and Marriage and Family Therapist who works with individuals, couples and...