There are so many contradictions surrounding alcohol consumption and young people. On one hand, educators and parents often warn teens and preteens about the dangers of drinking. But alcohol is surprisingly easy to obtain, either from an older sibling with a valid ID, a family’s alcohol supply or from friends who have fake IDs.
Many teens also eagerly embrace the idea — heavily pushed by advertisers — that alcohol makes them wittier, cooler and more desirable. After all, how many ads show someone slumped in a seat, sadly sipping a beer? Instead, you have lively, beautifully dressed people dancing, chatting and enjoying themselves with an alcoholic drink in hand.
Marsha Burnstein, mom to Max, 17, and Beth, 15, knows all too well the conflicting messages surrounding drinking. Despite being underage, her son drinks with his friends on the weekends.
“They drink at people’s houses or walking out on the street or hanging out in the parks,” she says. She doesn’t approve and has told him so, but she also tries to keep a dialogue going. “These are good kids, good students and good athletes,” notes Burnstein. “A lot of it is peer pressure and wanting to be cool.”
While Burnstein hasn’t been able to stop her son from drinking, she has made it clear that if a problem arises — especially if someone wants to drive after drinking — he can call and ask for help. “If he’s in trouble, or one of his friends is in trouble, and he needs a ride, he knows he can call me any time, no questions asked,” she says.
It can be very difficult for parents, who may have memories of rowdy teenage drinking parties, to know how and where to draw the line on alcohol consumption. While it can be easy to ignore a few beers and wine coolers as a normal rite of passage for teens, parents may be underplaying the ways in which a little bit of drinking can quickly spiral out of control.
Health Canada has warned that by Grade 10, 90 per cent of teens admit to having experimented with alcohol. Other studies have found that drinking begins as early as Grade 7 (age 12).
Burnstein has noticed that her kids’ peers began drinking very young. “Some start in grade seven and most are drinking by grade eight.”
As researchers have delved into teenage drinking, they are also finding some troubling facts. For example, teens who begin to drink before age 15 (the average age when most kids try alcohol for the first time) are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence at some time in their lives, compared with those who have their first drink at age 20 or older.
Kids who drink too much are also statistically at higher risk for suicide, drowning, homicide and learning impairments (such as short term memory loss). There are health problems associated with teen alcohol abuse, such as becoming overweight and developing high blood pressure. These teens are also at higher risk for addiction to tobacco products and drugs. Alcohol consumption lowers inhibitions and self-control, so teens who drink are more likely to become sexually active at a younger age, to become pregnant, and to have unsafe sex.
Helping your teens develop a responsible attitude towards alcohol requires an ongoing, open and two-way dialogue, to pick up on what all those beer and alcohol ads leave out. Burnstein advises parents to listen closely to their teens. “Even if you don’t always like what you’re hearing, it’s better to hear the truth.”
Alissa Sklar is a senior researcher and communications specialist at the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours at McGill University.
So what can parents do about underage drinking?
Communication is key. Experts suggest that parents begin talking to their kids about alcohol at a young age. While most 6-year-olds know alcohol is only for adults, kids between the ages of 9-13 begin to think it is okay to experiment. As they get older, you should point out instances on TV and in film, or in the world around you, of people using alcohol both responsibly and irresponsibly.
Model and talk about responsible drinking. Public health experts also underline how important it is for parents to model responsible alcohol consumption, since having a parent who drinks excessively is a big risk factor for teens. Parents can also talk to their kids about the difference between responsible and irresponsible drinking by asking questions such as: why might someone drink (to relax? to be like everyone else?). How frequently is a person drinking, i.e. every day, once a week, several drinks at a party?
Clarify your expectations. If you disapprove of alcohol consumption completely, make that perfectly clear. If you have no problems with a sip of wine when the adults open a bottle at dinner, those parameters should also be spelled out.
Warn against drinking and driving. Teens should be advised that it is never okay to drink and drive or to get into a car with someone who has been drinking. Let them know they can call you anytime, day or night, no questions asked, for a ride home if their only other alternative is to get into a car with a drunken driver.
Discuss strategies for avoiding alcohol use. Parents who want their children to abstain from drinking may need to come up with suggestions for their teens to say “no” without feeling ostracized. One way is to role play different scenarios in which they must speak up for themselves about responsible drinking. After all, it can be awfully hard to be the only kid at a party who says no, so it’s important to help them come up with answers or behaviours that make it socially feasible to abstain.