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Teens and alcohol

Turning Off the Drinkers’ Tap

A Parent’s Guide to Adolescents and Alcohol

by Pat McNees

This article was first published many years ago in the Washington Post, so some of the experts will now be elsewhere. Copyright (c) Pat McNees. For permission to reprint, contact the author here.

You hear about such things and you shudder: About the parents who return from a weekend trip to find an expensive oriental carpet ruined because their daughter had a party while they were gone and things got out of hand; about the 14-year-old who chug-a-lugged vodka at a “field” party and ended up comatose, her young body unable to handle that much alcohol that fast; about the seventh graders who raid the family liquor cabinet; about the teen-agers who load up U-Haul vans with beer to drive to Beach Week the day after school is out.

Drinking used to be viewed as a rite of passage into adulthood; now it’s viewed as a rite of passage into adolescence.

“Most parents, if they drank as adolescents, probably started at about 17,” says Lee Dogoloff, director of the American Council for Drug Education in Rockville. “The average age of first drug use now is between 12 and 14. And kids drink to get drunk. Adults use alcohol as a beverage – that’s unheard of for kids. It takes longer to grow an adult alcoholic, because adults start out with moderate drinking patterns and gradually increase their consumption. Kids start where adults are when they are halfway through the process.”

Because of inexperience, undeveloped social and coping skills, and developing brains and bodies, an adolescent can become an alcoholic in six to 18 months. “An estimated 20 to 30 percent of teenage drinkers are potential or complete alcoholics,” Marsha Manatt Schuchard writes in the Atlanta-based Parent Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) report “Teenage Drinking,” and “over one-third of America’s alcoholics (3.3 million) are under the legal drinking age.”

Teen-agers are drinking regularly enough to have serious problems. What can parents do? Dogoloff and other provided the following suggestions:

Educate yourself. Understand how teen-age drinking can harm your child biologically and developmentally, so you’ll feel comfortable taking a stand against it. Read about it, attend discussions and learn the symptoms of substance abuse. Avoid the parental denial and gullibility that “enable” teen-age substance abuse. Learn the areas of high risk: unchaperoned or poorly supervised parties, cruising in cars, lunches away from school (many kids go home to get high), late or no curfews (“most alcohol-related problems occur when teens are out after midnight,” writes Schuchard), sleep-overs, and events like Beach Week (the week in June when Rehoboth and Bethany are overrun by teen-agers drinking and using drugs). According to experts, long holidays like the upcoming winter break are among the worst times.

Make your position clear. Let your teen-ager know you disapprove of underage drinking, and why. Parents often not only serve as models for drinking behavior but encourage it in the belief, “Thank God, he’s only drinking.”

Set limits. “Sometimes parents need to be told that you can limit the amount of time your child spends out of the house and with whom, you can set and enforce a curfew, you can say no drugs and no alcohol,” says Laurette Harvey, a counselor with Parents and Children Together (PACT) in Montgomery County. Sometimes they need help designing consequences so they have a way of enforcing rules. “Adolescents value their freedom a lot,” say Harvey, “so consequences that curtail their freedom are usually fairly powerful, but it depends on the kid. IT could be suspending their allowance or such privileges as use of the family car, phone, stereo, TV; it could be doing jobs like scrubbing the floor or washing the windows.” Make sure the consequences are reasonable and enforceable: Don’t say “you can’t leave the house for the next month” if you won’t be around to enforce it. Have a contingency plan for continued misbehavior.

Don’t allow teen-agers to manipulate you with “You don’t trust me,” advises Harvey.

Network with other parents. Find out who your kids’ friends are and where they hang out. Get to know their parents and see if you can develop a consensus on the value of drug-free social activities. Some parents turn a blind eye to the use of beer or wine at parties, but kids are most likely to use drugs and alcohol at unchaperoned parties, or field parties held on school or park grounds, or in the parking lots off fast-food places. When your teen-ager says he’s going to a party, ask for the host’s phone number and call his parents to verify that (a) there’s a party, and they know about it, (b) it will be chaperoned, and (c) drugs or alcohol won’t be allowed.

Join other parents in monitoring your teen-agers’ behavior. It’s not uncommon, for example, for Susie to say she is going over to Jane’s house and for Jane to say she is going over to Susie’s house when Jane and Susie are really going to Debbie’s house, whose parents are away for the weekend. Only if Jane’s, Susie’s, and Debbie’s parents talk to each other can they figure that out. Set clear and consistent guidelines with your children, and among other parents, explaining that they are set lovingly to help them deal with negative peer pressure. With your child and with other parents, adopt a “concerned” rather than a “blaming” attitude, to avoid creating defensiveness.

Expect strong resistance, even anger, from your teen-ager if you haven’t been in touch with other parents and start now. Parents often shy away from conflict with their teenagers but sometimes “if your kid gets angry at you in adolescence it may be a sign that you are doing something right,” says Dogoloff. “The least thing parents should be concerned about is their child’s disapproval of their networking with other parents.”

Work with the school. Make sure your child’s school enforces no-drinking-no-drugs policies at school and school-supported functions. Encourage the school to provide drug education starting as early as sixth grade and reinforcing antidrug messages repeatedly and from different angles. Invite speakers who will engage teenagers emotionally: recovering addicts and alcoholics, or victims or convicted survivors of drunk-driving accidents, films (many juniors at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School get a two-hour tour of the shock trauma unit at a local hospital).

Get involved. See that your efforts at home aren’t undermined by the general environment. Join citizen groups in discouraging drug advertising (ads that make beer drinking seem macho, wine drinking sexy, cigarette smoking cool). Join organizations like MADD and PANDAA in “court watches” to see that drug-related offenses (including drunk driving and drug peddling) are fully prosecuted.

Parents worry that there aren’t enough things for kids to do. Dogoloff disagrees. “There’s plenty for them to do without getting loaded. Right now they’re going to parties that are unsupervised, because parents aren’t taking care of business¼ Nobody’s in charge, so they’ve been allowed to get away with it.”

“He only drinks on weekends,” parents tell Deborah Volz, manager of Arlington Hospital’s young adult alcohol treatment center. “Does he have a problem?”

Alcoholism is a national epidemic, says Volz, and it shouldn’t be overlooked in the war against drugs – it is the No. 1 drug. “The most effective way to get to kids who drink every weekend is to have them talk to kids who are recovering alcoholics or addicts, because it is a denial process. You don’t see the problem in yourself. It’s false to say they have to wait until they hit bottom,” says Volz. “Treatment is more successful when you get to it in the early stages, before physiological addiction.”

The chemicals in a drug like alcohol attach themselves to the brain cells’ receptors, replacing or altering the body’s natural chemicals. This is “in effect running the brain on the wrong fuel. It’s a little like using leaded fuel in a car designed for unleaded fuel; it will get you home, but over time it will ruin vital car parts.”

Body cells that are bombarded by alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine will reject them at first – then they will either die in the drug’s presence or adapt, Volz explains. Some cells will form thicker walls; some will change their chemical makeup, to use this new, strong fuel as energy. This adaptation is the first stage of addiction, and it is permanent. The second stage is dependence: the body cells learn to enjoy the drug and are not comfortable when the new, wrong food is taken away. The third stage is deterioration – the cells begin to die. “The first red flag for someone experimenting with alcohol or other drugs is tolerance – being able to consume large amounts and still function, without showing the effects of intoxication.”

Teen-agers develop drinking problems more quickly than adults because their bodies, still growing, adapt more quickly to the unnatural fuels being put into them. In fact, the greatest single predictor of drinking problems is age of first use, according to Lee Dogoloff, executive director of the American Council for Drug Education. The younger you start drinking, the more likely you are to abuse alcohol, to use other drugs and to handle social roles poorly.

Kids say, “I don’t have a problem with alcohol. I can drink three six-packs and never get drunk.” That’s a self-diagnosis of alcoholism, according to Volz, who frequently talks about alcohol problems to student and parent groups. “People who have an addiction problem usually don’t suffer the consequences, don’t get hangovers, and don’t get sleepy and stop drinking after a couple of beers. Kids who drink a lot or regularly develop a certain tolerance level and that’s pretty much their limit for life. With people who have a drinking problem, that tolerance level keeps going up – way beyond the norm. Then when they hit the deterioration stage, their tolerance level comes way down.

“The person with a tendency toward alcoholism tends to metabolize alcohol at a faster rate,” says Volz, a psychiatric nurse,” and thus to maintain a high longer without the after-effects, and to hang on longer to the toxins that will damage their bodies.”

People talk about “responsible” and “recreational drinking,” says Volz – but “some people can never be responsible drinkers: If they take one drink they are going to fly down that road of alcoholism. And then there are people who will never become alcoholic – who can never drink or take enough drugs to develop a tolerance: They’ll fall asleep, or feel uncomfortable, or have hangovers, etc.

“We now have evidence that people have a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism. In Sweden they tested identical twins whose parents were alcoholics and who were adopted by different sets of parents. These twins became alcoholic – despite being in nondrinking homes – at four times the normal rate. The trouble is, we don’t know ahead of time which people are more likely to become alcoholics or addicts. To experiment is to play Russian roulette.”


Originally published December 12, 1986.  Copyright (c) Pat McNees.