Thursday, February 9, 2012

Protecting our children from underage drinking

From Marilyn Belmonte, of Burlington Drug and Alcohol Task Force &

Recently, a parent attending one of my substance abuse prevention workshops in a nearby community asked my opinion on allowing her 17 year-old daughter to drink alcohol at home. The mother stated that she was very concerned about her daughter going off to college and becoming very intoxicated for the first time without any parent supervision.

The mother hoped that under her watchful eyes, her daughter would learn that alcohol consumption in large quantities can make her very sick. Perhaps she could even teach her daughter to drink responsibly. Then when her daughter is a college freshman, she will not participate in typical binge drinking activities.

The question is, does this practice work as a deterrent? Does allowing your teenager to drink freely at home deter them from getting drunk outside of the home?

It is impossible to say whether this parenting practice is beneficial for any individual adolescent but the science tells us that it will not work for the majority of teens. Numerous research studies show us that maintaining strict rules and consequences about underage drinking is most protective against teen alcohol use. Parents who use harm-reducing strategies such as allowing their high school teens to drink under their supervision, have a higher risk of those teens getting drunk outside of the home without parental permission than teens who are not allowed to drink at home.

Also, allowing your teen to experience alcohol in high school with parent supervision does not reduce alcohol use at college. Studies of college freshman show that heavy drinking occurs with a majority of students regardless of whether they started drinking alcohol in high school.

So the next question is, why bother trying to prevent high school drinking if it has little effect on college drinking?

It is well documented that underage drinking increases risk of adult alcohol disorders. In fact, the younger a person starts drinking alcohol, the greater that risk. Therefore, postponing the initiation of drinking as long as possible is a worthwhile effort for parents. The more years we can postpone the start of drinking, the more protected our children are from a lifelong alcohol addiction.

The last question is, how do parents postpone the onset of drinking?

Parental communication about their disapproval of underage drinking has been proven to help reduce the risk. Studies show that parents who are “soft” on teen drinking, are more likely to have teens who drink heavily.

Another factor that has been shown to decrease college freshman drinking is internal or “Intrinsic Motivation”. This is self-motivation driven by interest and enjoyment rather than external pressure, threat of punishment, or reward such as good grades, a trophy or money. The stress and pressure from external forces can actually drive heavy drinking. But one’s internal desire to achieve helps us to make healthier choices.

So encourage your teens to do their best at the activities they enjoy. Help them find areas of study that they are passionate about. Guide them in making goals for the future that excite them because postponing underage drinking is a worthwhile effort.

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