Parental Responsibility… Underage Drinking

by Lilian Cronin, MSW
First published in The Milton Times, 6-4-19

The national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Helen Witty, became actively involved with the organization following a tragedy that no parent wants to experience. Her daughter, at the age of 16, was killed by a seventeen-year-old drunk driver.

A common refrain among many parents is, “We’ll, we did it when we were their age.” Accepting that underage drinking is inevitable, well - intentioned parents who do not want their teens to become endangered by binge drinking, often try to provide what they consider to be safe parameters for them to consume alcohol. They may encourage their children to use ride shares such as Uber, spend the night at a friend’s house, or drink in one’s own home. Social scientists call this approach “harm reduction” and say the strategy is generally ineffective and may even help fuel teenage binge drinking. They say the idea of teaching teens to drink responsibly is misguided. Many studies show that teens given permission to drink at home are more likely to drink more frequently and in greater quantities outside the home than those not given permission.

Results from a 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that people who use alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to become alcohol - dependent than those who begin drinking at age 21. Research examining the brains of teens before and after they begin to engage in heavy drinking showed the heavy- drinking adolescents performed more poorly on assessments involving attention, working memory, and spatial and executive functioning.

Parents/ guardians are the number one protection against underage drinking. Experts agree that prevention is most effective when parents start to have a conversation with children, with small conversations starting when they are about nine years old, before they likely begin experimenting with alcohol. These conversations should focus not on lecturing, but rather on educating them about how heavy alcohol use can disrupt brain development. In short, parents and guardians are the best defense against children developing alcohol use disorders.

For tips on how to talk to your children about underage drinking, these two resources are good ones: