When Jenny, who lives in Massachusetts and has two children, ages 18 and 20, was growing up, she was introduced to alcohol via “teeny tiny glasses of wine at Shabbat.” She followed this same practice with her own kids starting when they were in high school.
“My feeling was, towards the end of senior year of high school, they need to learn how to deal with this stuff. I’m under no illusion that they’re going to college and not drinking. And so they can drink whatever they want when they’re here [at home],” Jenny (who preferred to withhold her last name) told HuffPost.
Both of her children now live on their college campus (they attend the same school), where they are thriving academically and socially. They also speak openly with their mom about their occasional use of alcohol and marijuana. In fact, Jenny’s daughter recently told her, “Getting drunk at school isn’t that exciting,” explaining she needs to feel “clear” in the morning when she wakes up.
By all accounts, Jenny and her kids are a success story — a home free from problems with alcohol. Does that mean that Jenny, and her parents before her, took the right tack? Should parents be introducing teens to alcohol at home to encourage responsible drinking in college?
Jessica Lahey of Vermont is a mother of two young adults as well. She initially prescribed to Jenny’s belief that total prohibition would backfire and a little alcohol use at home wasn’t a bad idea. “The oldest was allowed sips,” Lahey told HuffPost.
But by the time her second child became a teen, her views had changed. Lahey realized that she had developed an alcohol problem herself and entered recovery. She also began doing research, which eventually became her book “The Addiction Inoculation,” and learned that the younger a person is when they begin to use alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a problem.
“We changed what we did, and so I explained that to my daughter,” Lahey said. “I said to her, ‘Look, I did the best I could based on the knowledge I had when your brother was little. I now know a lot more.’”
Lahey also talks to her kids about being more at risk due to a family history of addiction.
Lahey now speaks frequently about substance use prevention, and she says that this question of letting teens drink at home is “one of the things that parents get most pissed off about and push back on.”
It’s a sensitive subject, and parents of teens find themselves in a bind. We don’t want our kids exposing themselves to danger by getting drunk and would likely prefer that our teens abstain entirely. But because we’re sent the message that underage drinking is inevitable, parents frequently conclude that the best-case scenario for a first drink is at home with family.
While a few sips of Champagne at a family function aren’t necessarily a recipe for disaster, the research is clear: The younger kids are when they start drinking, the higher their risk will be for developing alcohol use disorder.
“A kid who has their first drink in eighth grade, they have an almost 50% lifelong risk of developing substance use disorder. If it’s pushed by two years, into 10th grade, it drops by half, and if it’s pushed by another two years until they’re 18, it drops again by half — and at that point, we’re down to just about the national average for people with substance use disorder,” Lahey said.
One national study of more than 42,000 people found that those who drank before age 14 had a 45% risk of developing substance use disorder, and this risk went down to 10% for those who waited until turning 21 to drink.
Here are some of the common reasons parents have for giving their teens alcohol and why you may want to reconsider.
‘They’re going to drink anyway, so better under my roof.’
“The research that we have out there shows that, contrary to popular belief, not all youth are going to use alcohol ... especially on a regular basis,” Dr. Maria Rahmandar, medical director of the substance use and prevention program at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, told HuffPost.
“Trends have fortunately been going down for the past couple of decades. They peaked in the ’90s,” she explained.
Monitoring the Future, a survey of drug and alcohol use in the U.S., found in 2018 that, by the end of 12th grade, 59% of students had consumed “more than a few sips” of alcohol, and 42.9% of the 12th graders reported having ever been drunk.
Those aren’t small numbers. In fact, teen alcohol use in the U.S. is higher than in most other countries. But 43% isn’t everybody, and it means most kids are graduating from high school without ever having gotten drunk.
“Parents shouldn’t feel the pressure to be the ones to introduce alcohol to their youth,” Rahmandar said.
‘They need to learn how to drink in moderation so they don’t binge later.’
This argument makes intuitive sense. Most of us have had an experience where we restricted ourselves from doing something (like eating a certain food) and then were powerfully driven to do it in excess, like a binge. For example, because I didn’t have cable television growing up, I spent sleepovers at friends’ houses glued to MTV all night. But there isn’t evidence that this holds true when it comes to alcohol.
Rahmandar said she hadn’t seen evidence to support the idea that teaching youth to drink smaller amounts can improve their ability to handle alcohol later, adding that “actually, we see the opposite.”
“Earlier exposure leads to more problems later on,” she said. These include alcohol use disorder and also accidents such as car crashes.
Lahey pointed out that our intuition isn’t always right on this topic. “When we’re dealing with parents and rules around drinking, the problem is our common sense gets us in trouble sometimes,” she said.
‘We should follow the lead of European parents, who allow kids and teens sips or drinks at special occasions.’
While it’s true that debauched college students at frat parties aren’t a common sight in Europe, that doesn’t mean that these nations, which tend to have lower legal drinking ages (often 18, but in practice sometimes lower) have it all figured out when it comes to how alcohol fits into their culture.
In a video posted to her website debunking the myth of the moderate European drinker, Lahey explains: “The European Union as a whole has not only the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world but deaths attributable to alcohol.” Though there are exceptions, she notes — countries with fewer alcohol-related deaths — the idea that all of Europe has a healthier relationship with alcohol than the U.S. is problematic.
Looking at the World Health Organization data on global alcohol use, Europe is not the area of the globe that sticks out for its low level of alcohol-related issues — but there are places that do. Notably, much of the Middle East and northern Africa. These are areas with large populations of Muslims, who don’t drink for cultural or religious reasons, and varying prohibitions on the sale and public consumption of alcohol.
We don’t have evidence that giving teens small glasses of wine prevents alcohol problems, but we do know that the less access teens have to alcohol, the less likely they are to drink.
Lahey did mention one study pointing to the effects of introducing alcohol in the context of a religious observance as less harmful. Rahmandar also spoke of a study that found that alcohol use in the home was less harmful when it took place alongside parents rather than a parent buying teens alcohol for their own party, for example. But both of these are single studies, pointing to a need for more research in this area.
Bottom line? Delay, delay, delay.
Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, urge parents to help their children delay their use of alcohol until they are of legal drinking age.
In addition to an increased risk of addiction, Rahmandar noted that “youth brains are developing and are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of substances.”
Some parents may feel like their kids won’t be honest with them if they draw a hard line when it comes to underage drinking, but research shows that kids whose parents have a “permissive stance” on alcohol are more likely to drink and to experience negative consequences as a result of their drinking. Kids whose parents do draw that hard line are less likely to drink — and Lahey believes it’s worth doing the work of both trying to draw that line and maintain open communication with your kid.
“It is really important to have an honest and open relationship with teens,” Rahmandar said. She noted that prohibiting alcohol use doesn’t prevent you from having important conversations about safety, such as the extreme danger of drunk driving. She recommends that parents have a policy that they will come pick up their teen when called, no questions asked (at the moment, at least). Some even designate a code word or emoji that their teen can send to let them know they need help.
In addition to sharing with their kids what we know about alcohol and the teenage brain, parents can talk to kids who come from families with a history of addiction about their increased risk.
Lahey has been frank with her children about her own family’s history.
“I can’t prevent them 100% from developing substance use disorder, but I can heap as much prevention as possible on them given what I know some of the risk factors to be. The more substance use prevention I give them, the more good information, the more real percentages of who drinks and who doesn’t and what it does to their brain — that’s all the stuff that’s also going to help them get to recovery sooner if they do have an issue.”