Underage drinking is every parent’s nightmare, yet for many they are unprepared to draw firm boundaries. MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) reports that young people who get a strong message from their parents that any underage drinking is totally unacceptable are far less likely to drink before they’re 21.
MADD’s research shows that if a teen does not drink until they are 21, they will have an 80% chance of not abusing alcohol or being dependent on it later as compared to those who drink before 15. They will also be 70% less likely to drive after drinking too much when they are older as compared with those who drink before 14.
The reason for this statistic is a no brainer – most teens are immature, lacking the brain skills for the rational discernment needed in tough situations like…drinking. Teens are at their physical peak, mentally, and physically, yet emotionally they are behind the eight ball. Understanding that the young brain is not fully developed is proof that the longer a teen can hold off drinking and give their brains adequate time to finish growing results in healthier choices in the future.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health “rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages.”
Most kids will come through this period relatively unscathed, still when you take into account family history, childhood experience, and environment, PLUS the fact that they’re brains are still developing, some kids are at a much greater risk for exhibiting behaviors that jeopardize their health and safety, as well as the welfare of others.
The challenge is that in many homes there are conflicting beliefs about alcohol that make it difficult drawing the hard line. Some parents will recall their youth, probably over identifying with their own teenage years. They might not think it’s that big of a deal, they were young once, things turned out fine, it’s just kids being kids. Many families are from different countries where drinking is a cultural experience. They have not grown up with shame attached to drinking and when asked will say that when something is made out to be forbidden or “bad” it emphasizes the attraction to have to have it. Some families ponder the time when they will be able to have a drink with their son or daughter, a girl’s night out and a glass of wine with the girls, or a beer between the men. These notions are difficult to give up.
When a parent is asked to draw firm boundaries around underage drinking they are placed in the position of having to take an honest look at their own alcohol consumption and/or co-dependency issues. People-pleasing is not an attribute that works well when boundaries need to be drawn. This is the time to be your child’s advocate for a healthy, prosperous life, not the time to focus on being their best friend. Family of origin beliefs and matters will be at play here as well. Have an open discussion with your children about the family expectations about behavior around alcohol. But first you have to decide what they are. It’s valuable to note the importance of taking this time to make a family plan and set firm boundaries.