This past week’s topic for New Parent/Old Parent was teenage drinking and how to deal with it as a parent (and there were comments). The first thing that struck me was that in all my time moderating reader comments, I can’t remember so many as lengthy and nuanced — an indication, I think, on how complex and difficult the issue is and how much it can vary from child to child and from family to family. I was also touched by how many of the responses conveyed a sense of parental humility. I have worked hard to be a very good parent, but boy, did I fail on this front … a lot.
I was also pleased that many parents wrote about having absolutely zero tolerance for even having one drink, then driving. That’s an area in which we’ve made tremendous progress in my boomer lifetime. We were unequivocal with our children: Call us; call another parent; take a taxi; stay where you are. And as they got older: pick a designated driver. In my experience, there were some drug and alcohol educational programs aimed at teenagers that proved to be ineffective. But I think we owe a huge thank you as a society to what groups like M.A.D.D. and S.A.D.D. have accomplished through the years, in changing attitudes and in reducing drunken-driving deaths. Forty-five years ago, one of my friends was killed while driving drunk. He was 16. It was a terrible, unforgettable loss.
Anyway, to our readers. Many, like Alessandra in Bergamo, Italy, promoted the European approach of letting teenagers drink at family dinners, starting at their freshman year in high school, as a way of teaching moderation and demystifying alcohol:
“At this point, alcohol is fun but that excitement you had the first times you tried it is usually well over. This way you have less people driving around drunk. To me, this system makes much more sense than the American one.”
But anon from Brooklyn disagreed, writing that the European drinking culture is not all it’s cracked up to be and every bit as problematic as things in the United States:
“As to why such a preponderance of commenters report having no trouble with alcohol after having ‘learned to drink’ at an early age (i.e., the ‘European model’), my guess is that those who were not so lucky don’t tend to want to talk about it, or even admit it to themselves, given alcohol’s well-known ability to foster shame and denial in the abuser.”
David Shef, who has written a best-selling book on the horrors of dealing with his son’s chemical abuse, preaches doing anything in your power to push back the age of that first drink:
“More faulty logic comes from parents who say things along the lines of: ‘I’d rather have them get used to drinking now, so they learn moderation. Otherwise, when they go off to college they’ll go wild.’”
“This ignores the research that has demonstrated that postponing use is safer. In addition, there’s no evidence that kids who drink and use as teenagers will drink less when they’re older. In fact, the opposite is true: Almost every adult who has a drug problem started using as a teenager.”
You need to know how to read your teenager — they’re all different, wrote Benton from Louisville:
“… unless you take the time to get to know your child and build a trusting relationship, you will never be able to connect and build a strategy for your child. Understand their habits and their maturity level and implement a strategy accordingly. If you have a mature kid, reason with them and trust, don’t be an inelastic old school parent.”
JenRS from Newton, Mass., described an approach that was similar to mine: Accept that they will drink, pound moderation into their heads, ground them when they break the rules. Super strictness will not work, she said, and this may be the hardest challenge you’ll have as a parent:
“I definitely agree that the parents that are super strict simply have no idea where their kids are and what they are doing. It is a very, very hard issue, and I agree the very hardest I have had to face as a parent, but I think you need to think of the endgame: developing your children into mature, thoughtful, independent adults.”
Ryder s.ziebarth recommended watching out for fake ID’s, and wrote that giving your children a religious upbringing makes a difference:
“Impart this nugget: A ‘fake’ ID carries a fourth-degree felony charge in the state of New Jersey — 18 months in jail, one year probation, a $5,000 lawyer fee to try to get your child into a ‘First Offenders’ program (provided it is the first offense), which will expunge their record. If the charge is brought to a misdemeanor, it’s on the record for two years — no summer job, no grad school, no transferring.”
I give Mimi from Scarsdale credit for being honest. Her suggestion? Bribe them into sobriety:
“My own parents (35 years ago) bribed us to stay away from alcohol and drugs. They promised us an attractive sum of money at high school graduation if we abstained. It gave me an out when I went to parties where their was drinking.”
Many readers, like Post Motherhood, wrote that alcoholism in the family creates special problems:
“As they entered adolescence, I confronted their father on his excessive drinking — successfully ultimately, but not after much trauma-drama in the family. I have talked with our children starting at that time about the generations of excessive alcohol intake — and alcohol anxieties — plaguing their paternal family history.”
NE from New York asked how you verify whether they’re drinking or not:
“My daughter hosted a party at our apartment. Our policy was no alcohol and no one appeared to be drunk. However, we later discovered that the kids were hiding liquor bottles in cabinets and mixing vodka surreptitiously with soda. We couldn’t possibly monitor what every kid was doing. The only way we could have ensured there was no alcohol would have been to thoroughly search every corner of our apartment just beforehand to preclude any smuggling ahead of time, and then frisk every guest upon arrival. Breaking up the party did not accomplish much, either, since apparently most of the kids just headed to another party across town. I’ve also been told that kids drink in the street before they get to the party. “
And we got a view from inside an ambulance from Alison of Irvington, N.J., who offered some advice:
“As a volunteer in our local ambulance corps who has had to transport unconscious drunk teenagers many times, I would like to make a distinction between supervised alcohol consumption by your own child and purchasing alcohol for a bunch of kids.”
Having them call for a ride is well and good, Nicole of Boston wrote, but what do you do once you have them in the car?
“My question to parents out there who did the whole ‘call me and I will pick you up and I won’t lecture you’ bit is how that actually worked out when they did call you for a ride? Did it happen just the once, and they were so embarrassed that they never went to another party? Did they call you every other weekend to pick them up some place? If it did happen a few or more times, did you have to re-evaluate your approach in light of the fact that maybe your kid was having problems?”
Here’s what a retired state police officer, Pablo from Oregon, told his children:
“If you consume any alcohol or any recreational drug outside our home, call me and I will come and pick you up. Anywhere, any time. No questions, no trouble, no lectures.”
Several, including BratBusters from Vancouver, wrote that the core problem wasn’t drinking — it was low self-esteem:
“I deal with wayward teenagers on a regular basis and parents are always shocked that I never discuss their behavior with them … never. I discuss their self-image/self-esteem. That’s the basis of everything. Although I’m sure my son would say his fear of ‘Mom’s disappointing stare’ was enough to keep him in line. He was terrified of my stare, evidently, he told me that when he grew up. That stare was his mirror into himself, his own self-esteem reminder. The ‘You know you’re too good for this, kiddo, smarten up’ stare.”
Maybe. But I can tell you my four were brimming over with healthy self-esteem, and unhealthy drinking was still a problem in our house. When they were still teenagers and they did something stupid, often I was the one called in to talk to the principal or a teacher, and at those moments, when I felt I had failed as a parent, it was my self-esteem that suffered.
The New York Times
By Michael Winerip, October 11, 2013