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Why Parents Let Teens Drink Part II: Social Host Responsibility

November 20, 2015  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

As we approach the holiday season, many of us will be thrust into social situations where alcohol is consumed. The weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year can be festive and celebratory but, regrettably, also a time of risk for teens and young adults.  According to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, on an average December day, more than 11,000 young people, aged 12 to 17, will use alcohol for the first time, a figure only exceeded during the summer months. 

Last week’s article presented the results from a research study that documented why some parents not only allow their teens to drink alcohol but in some cases supply the alcohol. And, although well intentioned, some of the reasons for allowing their kids to drink is based on misperceptions or myths.

Misperceptions and Myths

Teen drinking is OK as long as they’re not driving. Drinking impairs judgment whether or not your teen gets behind the wheel. About 30% of teen drinking deaths are related to driving; almost 70% are related to other causes such as alcohol poisoning (often due to binge drinking), homicides, suicides, and unintentional injuries such as burns, drowning, and falls.  

Drinking is a rite of passage; parents can’t do anything to prevent it. Some of you may believe that your words of advice hold no power over the decisions your teens make about drinking. Parents often underestimate the influence they have over their own children. However, studies show that teens who believe their parents would disapprove of their behavior were less likely to use alcohol; in fact 80% of teens said their parents were the leading influence on whether or not they would drink. 

It’s better for kids to start drinking young, so that they can learn how to handle it. Alcohol impacts teenagers differently than adults because the adolescent brain is still developing—especially the part of the brain that deals with decision-making. Drinking before the age of 21 places teens and young adults at higher risk for academic failure, depression, suicide, and sexual assault. It also increases a teen’s risk for alcohol dependence; kids who begin drinking before age 17 are twice as likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21. Those who begin by age 15 are more than four times more likely to develop dependence.

In Europe, teens drink more responsibly than in the U.S. According to data collected from 15- and 16-year-olds in 35 European countries, European kids actually drink more often, drink more heavily and get drunk more often than American teens. According to the World Health Organization, the earlier young people start drinking, the more likely they are to experience alcohol-related injury and alcohol dependence later in life.

Some parents believe that being ‘too strict’ about drinking during high school will cause their teens to drink more when they leave home. Research from The Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (sponsored by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids) reveals “that teens who perceive their parents to be more permissive about alcohol use are more likely to abuse alcohol and to use other drugs.

Alcohol isn’t as bad for teens as other drugs. Alcohol is the most widely abused substance among adolescents and kills more teens than all other drugs combined. Also, alcohol places kids at a higher risk for academic failure, depression, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and misuse and abuse of other substances.

Cracking down on underage drinking will only make kids want to drink more. Many of us think that teens are naturally rebellious, however, research shows that the majority of kids respond best to clear rules—both from their parents and society at large. Teens are significantly less likely to drink alcohol when they believe their parents think it would be  “wrong” or “very wrong” for them to do so.  

Social Host Law: Some Exceptions

The Social Host Law in Massachusetts is clear: whoever furnishes alcohol to a person under 21 years of age shall be punished by a fine up to $2,000 or imprisonment for up to a year or both. It will be on you...

  • if your teen is caught with alcohol
  • if your teen gets arrested
  • if your teen has a car accident
  • if your teen injures themselves or others 

There is an exception in the law; Massachusetts allows you to serve alcohol to your children and grandchildren. However, before serving your underage child or grandchild an alcoholic beverage in your home it’s important that you be aware of the possible consequences. If your child or grandchild causes property damage or an injury, you may be liable for substantial monetary damages in a civil suit.

Supplying alcohol to your teen or preteen increases the risk for continued drinking and can lead to problem drinking later in life. Research shows that teens who perceive their parents to be more permissive about alcohol use are more likely to abuse alcohol. More than half of high school students who say their parents allow them to drink at home – even just occasionally – report that they drink elsewhere with their friends, as compared to just 14 percent of teens whose parents don’t let them drink at home.

A research study from the University of Pittsburgh (involving more than 450 kids noted) that 20% of kids had tried alcohol for the first time between age 8 and age 12; their parents' approval and drinking behaviors were the biggest factors. According to a press release about the study, “This research suggests that if children do not see their parents as strongly disapproving of child sipping (of alcohol), the children will be more likely to take a first step into alcohol use.” And, The parents “need to be aware that there is no research that establishes that 'teaching' children to drink or letting them drink in the home protects them from later involvement in binge drinking or alcohol problems."

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