Teen Safe Drinking? See why parents should not make it easier


Called by social scientists of "harm reduction," this strategy is more than ineffective, experts say. In fact, it is helping to fuel an epidemic of teenage abuse. Although many parents of teenagers today drank when they were young, the data show important differences among teens who drank then and now.

In 1991, about half of high school students reported consuming alcohol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Today, less than 18% of high school students drink. This 65% decline is news to celebrate.

But here's the bad news: Many of today's teens who choose to drink do it in excess. More than half of high school students who drink alcohol report recent episodes of excessive alcohol consumption – consuming five or more doses at a time – according to the CDC. This comes as no surprise to Joseph LaBrie, a professor of psychology and alcohol researcher at Loyola Marymount University.

"One of the main reasons I see now [for underage drinking] is to black-out, get lost. That was not the case 20 years ago, "he said.

Most parents do not want their children to drink too much. But parents who try to provide safe parameters – such as having teenage children drinking in the basement with friends – increase the likelihood that their children will become compulsive drinkers.

"Parents really think they're doing the right thing. It comes from such a good place," said Lindsay Squeglia, an alcohol researcher and a professor at the University of Medicine in South Carolina.

Researchers in the growing field of alcohol research are not interested in judging parents. Instead, they are eager to share evidence that unequivocally demonstrates why teens benefit from waiting even a few years before they start drinking.

Experts also want parents to know that they have far more influence over their teen's drinking decisions than they realize. Bullying tactics, like movies showing crushed cars and the sound of screaming sirens rushing to the scene of a drunken driving accident, dominated teen alcohol prevention efforts. But much evidence shows that these methods are highly ineffective.

It's easy for teens to get rid of shock tactics – rationalizing, for example, that a tragedy will not happen to them, says Squeglia. But the factual information presented in a direct way is more effective.

"Information is the most powerful tool," Squeglia said.

Experts say that the human brain is not fully formed until adulthood, around the age of 20. In recent years, scientists have examined images of the adolescent brain that show the harmful effects of alcohol. The normal development of the adolescent brain involves a pruning of the gray matter and an increase of the white matter, which serves as the "access road" of the brain, connecting different regions of the brain.

Squeglia research examining the brains of adolescents before and after starting heavy frequent drinks showed faster declines in gray matter and fewer increases in white matter than in the brains of their non-consumer peers. Overweight adolescents also presented inferior performance in evaluations involving attention, working memory, spatial functioning and executive functioning.

While alcohol researchers such as Squeglia have begun educating teens about how heavy alcohol use can hinder brain development, experts say that those with the most influence on adolescents' decisions about alcohol often can not exercise it .

"Parents are the number one protection against underage drinking," said Helen Witty, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), whose 12-year-old daughter was surprised by a 17-year-old driver on a sunny afternoon. she was skating

Several studies confirm this. A longitudinal survey of 5,000 adolescents aged 12 to 19 concluded that adolescents less likely to drink heavily had parents who exhibited a combination of warmth and high responsibility, for example, knowing where their children were.

But many parents can not exert their influence. Experts say misperceptions are often the culprits.

"There are so many myths," said Loyola Marymount's LaBrie, including this popular one: if I can teach them to drink at home, they'll be fine. The idea of ​​teaching teens to drink responsibly is wrong, he explains.

A recent review of more than 20 studies on the subject concluded that adolescents who were allowed to drink at home are more likely to drink more often and more often away from home.

Teens who start drinking early often pay for it later in life. A much-cited national study showed that people who use alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than those who start drinking at age 21.

Another widespread misconception, says LaBrie, is that teens who are not allowed to drink at college will "go crazy" in college. While he acknowledges that students who do not make it to class sometimes get to college and quickly go to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, such cases are an exception.

"The vast majority of children who do not drink at school become very light drinkers in college, compared to children who started drinking when they were 14, 15," he said.

Another fallacy generally accepted by parents, LaBrie said, is that other parents' attitudes toward alcohol are more supportive than theirs, which may influence them to adjust their own mentality.

"What tends to stand out [to parents] is the only father who throws a party, "he said.

"Most parents do not feel comfortable or competent talking about drinking with their children," said Rob Vincent, a public health analyst with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) who recently launched a consumer prevention of minors throughout the country. campaign: conversation. They hear you.

Vincent says the campaign is a research-backed answer to the question, "How do you help parents have a conversation that is factually correct and involved in a way that is not humiliating and exhausting?"

To begin with, Vincent said, do not give lectures. Instead, have several small conversations that begin early, when children are about 9 years old – well before they begin to experience alcohol. Even though children often ignore the lectures, LaBrie emphasizes the importance of clearly communicating expectations about alcohol to teens.

"They are getting all sorts of harm reduction messages from all over the place. What they need from their parents is a lesson in values," he said, while acknowledging that it requires an act of balance in which parents present their posture in a caring manner. context. "Tell your child, 'I want what's best for you,'" LaBrie said.

This article was written by Elizabeth Heubeck, a reporter for The Washington Post.


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