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Parents, Teens, and Alcohol: A Dangerous Mix

Learn why the mixed messages that parents send to teens when they allow them to drink at home may actually be to blame for excessive teen drinking.
Updated: December 1, 2022

Parents, Teens, and Alcohol: A Dangerous Mix

Parents Playing It Cool
Mike and Molly throw the best keg parties in town. The beer flows freely as burly varsity-football players collect car keys at the door. Teens mill around, shouting over the pounding music, hugging and "high-fiving"the couple. The problem? Mike and Molly graduated high school 25 years ago, and this is their 18-year-old son's summer beer bash.

"These parents think they should be nominated for 'Parents of the Year,'" says family therapist Carleton Kendrick. "They regard themselves as enlightened crusaders for their teens. They walk the walk and talk the talk.They're so desperate to be considered cool by their kids that they believe the law doesn't apply to them.They think they're wiser and better than the parents who won't provide alcohol."

"Some parents seek the approval of their teens and want to be looked up to," says Richard Yoast, director of the American Medical Association's Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse. "But even if they just graduated high school, these kids aren't 21 yet and they're not supposed to be drinking. It astounds me that parents think that as long as they are serving the alcohol, they can controltheir kids and other kids' actions."

When you add drinking to natural teenage curiosity and pleasure-seeking, Kendrick notes, the results can range from throwing up all over someone's carpet or saying something regrettable, to tragedies like unprotected (and unwanted) sexual contact, or fighting that leads to injury or even death."These parents know that kids are going to drink, but they've decided to be the responsible ones and supervise their drinking," says Kendrick. "Why not pass out condoms and contraceptive foam and say, 'You're going to do this anyway, so why not here? Go have some safe sex and have fun.'"

Bargaining with Booze: A Bad Idea
Your teen may whine, "You're the ONLY parent who won't let their kids drink when they're seniors."But a 1998 study sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 96 percent of Americans viewunderage drinking as a significant problem and support measures that would reduce teen drinking.The study also showed that 83 percent of respondents favored punishment of adults who provide the liquor.

"Underage drinking is a factor in nearly half of all teen automobile crashes," states Robert Wood Johnson vice president Nancy Kaufman. "It also contributes to suicides, homicides, and fatal injuries, and is a factor in sexual assaults and date rapes."

The mixed messages that parents send when they "bargain" with teens and allow them to drink at home may actually be to blame for excessive teen drinking. Consider these disturbing trends:

  • A 1993 study of 15,000 students by the Minnesota-based Johnson Institute, which fights alcohol use at school and at work, showed that permissiveness at home affects adolescent choices more than peer pressure.
  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) surveys estimate that when parents "bargain" with their kids and let them drink as long as they promise not to drive, teens are more likely to drive after drinking or be in a car with someone who is drinking.
  • The University of Minnesota's School of Public Health found that teens whose parents orfriends' parents provided alcohol for parties were more likely to drink, get into traffic crashes,get involved in violence, and participate in thefts.

Then there's also the sticky problem of setting a bad example for teens who want to do the right thing."Some kids don't want to drink," says 18-year-old Courtney Michna. "They want an out and their parents provide a good excuse. If kids say 'Want some?' and they say, 'No, my parents will kill me,' most kids say, 'OK, that's cool, there's more for me!' But if parents are saying 'Go ahead, it's perfectly fine to drink,' then what out do kids have?"

Kendrick goes a step further. "Parent-sponsored drunk-fests make it harder for the kids who don't drink and for parents who won't let their kids drink. It's almost an inherent challenge that these parents lay down by saying, 'I'm sponsoring this because I think your teen is mature enough to drink responsibly.' A teen who doesn't drink or whose parents say it's wrong thinks, "What's wrong with me? Am I the only one who feels this way?" But Kendrick believes there is a hugedifference between "kids experimenting with alcohol and kids drinking with adult approval."

Debby Hutter, a mother of four adolescents, agrees with Kendrick's assessment. "I feel like I would be ostracized ifI said my daughters couldn't go to a prom or graduation party because there was drinking going on. My daughters sayto me, 'Mom. You just don't get it.' But I don't get how parents--even if they take away the car keys--can justifyserving 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds beer. Kids make bad choices, but what can you do when parents facilitatethose choices? It's totally disgusting to watch these kids get drunk!"

One in Three Teens: The Dangers of Binge Drinking
It's up to parents to remind their teens that too many drinks ingested either accidentally or intentionally can result in alcohol poisoning, and sometimes death, asserts National Family Partnership spokesperson Milton Creagh.

"Alcohol is a drug that numbs the brain," explains Creagh. "If too much is used, it paralyzes the nerve center in the brain and puts the brain to sleep. When the brain slows down, so does the respiratory system. When the lungs and heart stop sending oxygen to the brain, breathing stops.Are you going to monitor every teen at your party to make sure there's no binge drinking going on?"

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that a shocking one third ofhigh-schoolers are binge-drinkers. Yet a poll conducted by the group Drug Strategiesshowed that only three percent of parents thought their teens had indulged in bingedrinking in the past month.

In 1997, a 16-year-old Orland Park, IL, girl won an $80 bet by chugging a quartof 107-proof alcohol at a party. The high school sophomore drank for 6 hours straightbefore going home to sleep at her best friend's house. She never woke up. The autopsyfound that her blood alcohol level was .381, more than 4 times the amount that is considered "safe."

"'Making it 'safe' for kids to drink is a complete contradiction of terms!" maintains Shepherd Smith, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Youth Development. "We have laws regulating use by age because of the lack of physical and psychological maturity. We'velearned that people under the age of 21 have dramatically impaired judgement."

Smith urges parents to rethink just what "responsible drinking" is for underage drinkers."Parents think they did it, so their kids can do it, too. After all, parents don't want to say what they did as teens was all wrong."

What Can Parents Do?
What should you do if you find out that your teen is going to a party where parents are serving alcohol? "You can say, 'You can't go,'" Smith suggests, "or you can call the parents and remind them in a non-confrontational way that neighbors often call the police and it's embarrassing and legally costly to parents when they are arrested." When police come to break up a party, Smith notes, everyone is arrested, even those who are not drinking. Some parents even call the police and ask them to call the parents and remind them what the consequences could be."

Creagh recounts a recent incident when parents let their teenager have a drinking party. They collected the car keys and went upstairs. But there was a fight and one of the boys was stabbed to death. The fingerprints of another guest were on a knife and he was charged with murder. Yet he never remembered stabbing the boy because he was so drunk.

"Adults who serve alcohol are playing economic Russian roulette," Creagh maintains. "I say to them, 'If you can't dig deep and find the moral backbone to refuse to serve alcohol to your teenagers and their friends, then at least look at the legal ramifications that could cost you all your money. Maybe that will pound some sense into your head.'"

"Parents are supposed to have arrived at maturity, while kids are supposed to be passing through adolescence on the way to adulthood. You can empathize, but you don't have to join your teen,"'s Kendrick asserts. "They need you to point them in the right direction and keep them safe. You're supposed to give them wisdom, not a keg party in the basement."

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