My son is a junior in high school with a core group of friends who have been together since elementary school. They are all good students and planning to attend college. A few of the parents in this group allow their boys to drink alcohol at their home (with other friends) even though we all talked about not doing this when our boys were young. They say they want their kids to keep talking to them and don’t want their children to have to hide their drinking. I am flabbergasted. I would never have expected this and it does not sit right with me. Is allowing your kids to drink at home really helping communication?
-Concerned Island Parent
Like so many parents, your sons’ friends’ parents have their hearts in the right place. Open communication with your teen is important, but not in exchange for allowing such high risk behaviors. The parent role changes over time. When your kids become adults, you can think about more of a peer relationship. However during the teen years, if you try to connect with your child by treating them as a friend or an adult, you imply that they are your peer and their power is equal to yours. This is a dangerous position given what we know about brain development and alcohol risks.
First, your son’s pre-frontal cortex, where many decisions about risk taking are made, is not nearly done developing and still not prepared to make solid decisions about inherently rewarding, but risky, behaviors like drinking.
There is a risk in allowing teens to become accustomed to drinking in an otherwise “safe” environment like home. Research out of the University of Washington has found that teens used to drinking in high school are at greater risk from alcohol when they go to college. The body learns to expect intoxicants based on the surroundings of your sons’ friends’ basement and prepares by altering its chemical balance to deal with alcohol.
At college, in new surroundings, the body is not cued to prepare for alcohol ingestion and an eager college freshman used to several drinks in his friend’s basement, might find that the same number of drinks has far greater, and more risky, effects.
Years of research in public health and prevention have found that there are more risks in allowing teens to drink “safely” compared to enforcing a zero tolerance rule. Evidence suggests the safest strategy to avoid any future alcohol problems, even in families with this history, is to delay initiation of alcohol use for as long as possible and at least until age 21.
Unfortunately, I’ve talked to many parents who interpret this standard to mean that there’s no room for staying connected to their teen — but this is not the case.
You can approach a zero tolerance policy with a teen much as you would a “no playing with matches” policy with a small child. In both cases, set a firm limit about a high risk behavior while simultaneously joining with them in how to deal with that limit.
For example, talk with teen about strategies for connecting with friends without alcohol. Give your teen well-researched facts about the risks, without exaggeration. Avoid telling personal horror stories about alcohol as that can send an unintended message about normalizing excess. Talk about “free rides home without questions” if in a situation where others are drinking. Finally, consider talking with those parents again.
Youth and Family services conducted a survey in 2013 among Island parents and found that 85 percent of parents agreed that “parents should not let their underage children drink at home” and 84 percent replied, “I am comfortable talking to other parents about rules or guidelines on underage drinking.”
There are many ways to stay connected to your teen — colluding with the undeveloped part of their brain prone to risk taking is not the best approach.
This can be a hard topic for friendships during the teen years. Good luck with this issue, especially if you decide to speak with one of the parents who allows the drinking.
YFS welcomes hearing from parents who have had to deal with the issue of talking to peers who allowed drinking in their home.
How did the conversation go — and were there any changes to the friendship or the parent permissiveness? Let us know if you have tips on how to have this type of conversation go well, we will share these with other parents.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email miyfs@mercergov. org.