Our children are growing up with mixed messages about alcohol and drugs, at least that’s how it feels to me here in Washington. It seems to me we’re grappling with using pot and what to do with alcohol as a community. As our state legalized marijuana use this past year, we sent a big flare into the sky. It’s possible we really do one thing and then say another in front of our children and teens, particularly at times of celebration. No question they are watching. Can you seriously imagine a pro football game without beer ads or a holiday party without booze? I can’t. The great luck is that we have profound influence over our children (tah dah!); we have a huge opportunity to help them survive.
One of the biggest mistakes parents to teens make is to believe that they no longer have influence on their kids — Lara Okoloko, LICSW
I read a tweet about a month ago suggesting that perhaps we should never drink alcohol in front of our children. At first glance it seemed somewhat absurd — that we’d ban a legal adult substance from our lives as parents to young (or teen) children that we can enjoy and drink (even in moderation) all because of the risk that our children may abuse it if they saw us drink while children. However when I read the statistics on teens and alcohol it got me thinking that perhaps I needed to be more thoughtful, not only how I talk about this but how I live with my children these next 15 years. At first glance, avoiding alcohol just seems like an inconvenient annoyance. Yet I started to read the data I recognized the incredible opportunity we all have to speak clearly and repeatedly about alcohol and risk with our children, early on.
Parents are the #1 influence on whether teens choose to drink (or smoke weed). Experts really stress we need to share data and opinions with our teens before they start drinking. The hope is that when we explain how we feel, when we share facts, when we clearly articulate that alcohol could kill a teen or their friends, that we can help our children understand their actions can greatly affect their happiness and their survival. I really don’t think I’m over-framing this in terms of survival. Teens are 3 times as likely to be in a fatal crash than older, more experienced drivers and the 3 main causes of fatal crashes among teens are drunk driving, speeding, and distracted driving (think cell phone). Alcohol-related car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens and young adults.
Most teens don’t drink. But 1 in 3 teens start drinking by the end of 8th grade, with 1/2 of those teens reporting having been drunk.
Here in Washington, the state Healthy Youth Survey (HYS) surveys teens every 2 years and finds that underage drinking is our state’s “biggest drug problem.” However, groups working to help teens make safe choices have been overwhelmingly effective. From 1990 to now the number of 8th graders who drink has been reduced by half. Reality, though, is that teens drink to get drunk.
What Washington 10th Graders Say About Alcohol & Pot:
- 28% had a drink in the last month
- 16% had 5 or more drinks in a row in the last 2 weeks
- 1 in 5 used marijuana
- More than 1 in 10 are smoking cigarettes (and we know they are also learning to “vape”)
So it’s clear teens are experimenting and thinking about alcohol. The most important strategy for parents is to start with knowing that what you say is likely the most influential force on how your children understand the dangers of alcohol.
Tips For Talking With Teens About Alcohol And Survival
- Majority Of Teens Don’t Drink: Remind teens that it’s the minority, not the majority, of teens who drink alcohol. Tell them the truth: the number of teens who say they’ve consumed alcohol before driving within the last month has decreased by 54% since 1991. Further, 9 out of 10 teens are doing a good job when it comes to drinking and driving — 90% say they haven’t had a drink and drove a car in the last month.
- Drinking To Get Drunk — Teens don’t typically drink moderately. In fact, 85% of teens who drink say they binge drink (consume >5 drinks in a matter of a few hours). You can explain the difference and the risk that comes with binge drinking, especially when teens mix alcohol with caffeine (i.e. using energy drinks). Explain to teens it’s never okay if a friend passes out from alcohol; ensure they know to call 911 if this occurs as alcohol poisoning can kill.
- Teen Driving & DUI— First off, provide your teen reassurance that you will always help them find a safe way home (pick them up or paying for a cab) if their driver has been drinking. Detail the risks with drinking and driving–teen drivers are at much greater risk of crashing after drinking alcohol than older adults. Explain that it’s illegal and if a teen gets a DUI they will lose their license and will be at risk of losing a college acceptance, a sports scholarship, or other opportunities. In 2010, 1 in 5 teen drivers involved in a fatal crash had some alcohol in their system (of those, 80% were over legal limit).
- Talk The Truth And Don’t Stop— Talk about how drinking affects the brain early before kids drink and throughout high school. Alcohol moves through blood and goes to every organ, including the brain. Alcohol seriously can damage long-term brain growth and change how a person learns, thinks, and remembers. Although 40% of 8th graders say their parents have talked to them about drinking, only 29% of 12th graders say their parents talk to them about alcohol. Don’t give up! Teens need to know how drinking will affect them and that a person who is drinking is not a good judge of how impaired they are. Trying to terrify your teen may backfire. Instead, be truthful but avoid overly harsh scare tactics. Think of yourself as a go-to for info.
- Sign A Contract— Teens do respond to contracts. Set clear no-alcohol use rules, and agree on appropriate consequences for breaking these rules. Enforce consequences when the rules are broken. Here’s a sample TEEN Driving Contract you can print out and use (voila!!!)
Good Links On Child & Teen Drinking
- Start Talking Now Website designed to help you start talking with your child before they start drinking — great data and lots of pie charts to peruse.
- A Pediatric Concern: Alcohol Use by Youth And Adolescents AAP report loaded with facts about effects of alcohol on health.
- Mothers Against Drunk Driving MADD site — these moms were practicing what I like to call “Mom-to-Mom Health Care” long before the birth of the “mommy blog.” The site is full of great data, scary stories, passion wed with numbers, and ample hope.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration
Special thanks to Deb Schnellman at WA State Dept of Social and Health Services for alerting me to all of these resources!
Joe McCarthy says
Years ago, when our children were younger, one friend with children the same age as ours adopted an alcohol abstinence policy for many years, however his wife did not. I do not know whether his children started drinking [as teens], or what influence the different decisions made by their father and mother influenced their own views and decisions about drinking.
If you have any references to the data you’ve been collecting on the issue, I’d be interested in learning more. I know that children of alcoholics are far more prone to become alcoholics (which could be due to nature and nurture), but I’m unaware of any studies looking at the influence of casual parental alcohol use on teen drinking.
Elinor Kelliher says
I have recently realized that it is important for us parents to counter the messages kids gets from society “alcohol use is normal”, “hangovers are part of life” “passing out from alcohol use is funny” and so on. Unhealthy alcohol use is pervasive in our culture. “Social drinking” or “moderate drinking”, when looked at more closely, is often alcohol abuse or unhealthy use.
I have made a commitment to talk more openly with my own teens about this topic. Alcohol is part of our world. I am trying to give them the tools they need to look at it honestly and make decisions about how or whether to have a drink when they are old enough to drink legally. And I am modeling sensible, moderate (read: once a week or less) alcohol use myself.
One mistake a lot of parents make is thinking it is OK for kids to drink underage. It is not OK. It is illegal and moreover kids are more likely to develop alcohol use disorders when they are younger at the time of their first alcoholic drink.
I like your message that kids should call 911 if a friend passes out from alcohol use. Too often we hear about kids dying because their friends did not know how serious alcohol poisoning can be.
This is not an easy topic for parents to talk about because for many people, it is a loaded issue due to personal or family experiences. And other times, parents are in denial about their own unhealthy alcohol use so are not able to give a consistent or clear message to their own kids.
-a fellow Pediatrician and mom
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thanks, Dr Kelliher. Really appreciate your added points and thoughts. The more and more I look around and learn about the consequences of significant alcohol consumption the more I agree with what you said here: