Recently the New York Times published an article with this provocative title, although they were focusing more on grad parties than underage teens experimenting with alcohol.

Most of my readers know that I’m parenting a 14-year old boy.  Unfortunately, alcohol seems to have become a significant part of his peer group’s entertainment, and I’m in an ongoing struggle to keep him from indulging in this behaviour.

Teenage drinking is nothing new.

As an article published by the New York Times in 2006 reminds us that teenagers have been drinking alcohol for centuries and adults have been trying to limit that consumption for nearly as long.

My own concern is compounded by the knowledge that addiction is a hereditary affliction that runs down both sides of our family tree.  The concern that has been growing within the medical community re: underage alcohol consumption is increasingly a neurobiological one.

Trying to figure out how to navigate this time of my teen’s life is an ongoing exploration of what’s happening in his social circle, what’s happening in our community, what the latest research is telling me and what my common sense and experience is guiding me to do as a parent.

And what the research is telling me is that turning a blind eye to the occasional alcohol infused teen party could be setting the stage for my son, and his peers to damage their brains irreparably, or paving the way to addictive behaviour that may be difficult, if not impossible to reverse.

Do you think that by offering a young teen an occasional drink in the home that you’re teaching them how to drink responsibly?  I have to admit, I used to think that way, but I’ve changed my mind.  There are ongoing studies being done on this, but the conclusion of all the studies I’ve found is that those who start drinking earlier in life, have a higher chance of developing alcohol problems later in life.

That does make sense to me, but another study had delivered findings that are a bit shocking.  Researchers are claiming that early exposure to alcohol can lead to poor judgment later in life.   Ok, so the study was done with rats, but it’s a finding that is worth giving some consideration to when looking at the long term impact of early drinking behavior.

There are many community initiatives coming together throughout North America to put the brakes on underage drinking.  Everything I’ve read indicates that involving the youth from the inception of any program ensures success.

I had a conversation with child and family therapist, Alyson Jones on this topic:

Laura: I’m curious Alyson, does alcohol abuse amongst young teens (under the age of 17) show up as an issue very often in your practice?

Alyson: Yes it does, very much so.  By the time they’re 17 it’s not so much the issue – other issues have shown up by then.  Children as young as in grade 7 and 8 seem to be experimenting with alcohol these days.  It’s not unusual for kids to be experimenting with alcohol, what’s distressing is how young they’re beginning the experimentation.

And the younger children start drinking, the more likely they are to develop addiction issues.

Laura: What do you think is leading to this trend towards younger children experimenting with alcohol?

Alyson: Well, even our generation started experimenting with alcohol quite young, but there does seem to be a trend towards so much beginning at a younger age.  Kids are getting cell phones in elementary school, and they’re getting Facebook pages in grade 6.   What we’re doing is pushing our kids towards sophistication too early.  We’re confusing sophistication with maturity.

Laura: So how do we reverse this trend?

Alyson: Well, that’s a big picture piece.  We need to keep our children close as much as possible.  We have to understand what maturity is, and appreciate that social acceptance is different from maturity.  Communication is key.  Guide them through choices, let them know you believe in their ability to make good choices, and that you believe in their ability to clean things up if they’ve made a mess too.  You want them to come back and keep talking with you.

Laura: Some parents think that by hosting parties in their homes, allowing underage teens to drink a bit in a controlled environment that they’ll teach them responsible drinking habits.  What do you say to that?

Alyson: There are different schools of thought on that.  Some parents think that way, and then others say absolutely not, that’s just never going to happen.  But we have to be really careful, if we want to be leaders as parents, it’s natural for kids to want something to push up against.  So we need to set limits.  If they think that your house is the one that they can go drink at, they’re not really going to be respecting you as a leader.

There are rites of passage, and they are going to go out and experiment, but you want your kids to know that they can reach out to you no matter what.  There might be that trip in the wee hours to go out and retrieve your kid, and then you have a talk about it the next day.  That is distressing, but there can be a lot of constructive things that come from that as well.  There are lessons to be learned from the consequences.

Alcohol is an interesting one, because teens are watching their parents relationship with alcohol as well.  What is being modeled?  Moderation?

Laura: Exactly, you want to show them what you want them to grow into.  Moderation and not driving after drinking.

Alyson: And one of the best things to keeping teens away from experimentation with alcohol is having rich family lives and activities that they’re engaged in.

Additional Resources:

Stop Underage Drinking – A portal of U.S. Federal Resources and Articles

Community How To Guides on Underage Drinking Prevention

Wellsphere has a webpage with numerous links to articles on this topic of underage drinking.

So much has been written about the adolescent’s brain development and this HBO article and brief video on brain development and substance abuse are worth reviewing.

The Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking

Teenage Drinking Diaries

NOTE:  Shortly after posting this blog, I logged onto the Vancouver Sun to read about a 16 year old teen who has suffered a head injury after falling off a car in the parking lot of our neighborhood high school parking lot on Friday night.  Alcohol is believed to have been a contributing factor.