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Helene Pavlov, M.D. Headshot

Teen Drinking: Do Parents Know the Facts?

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Parents expose their children to all sorts of activities. They teach their offspring how to swim, how to ride a bicycle, how to ski and how to sail. Should they also teach their teenagers how and when to drink?

According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, by the time they turn 21, 86 percent of American youths have used alcohol and 50 percent are binge drinking, defined as having five or more drinks in a single session for men, and four or more for women. Should parents introduce alcohol use to children to help them drink more responsibly or does early exposure lead to an increase in alcohol abuse later on?

"Wall Street Journal" health columnist Melinda Beck wrote a piece on the subject and was also interviewed by Kelsey Hubbard, producer for the WSJ Video Network, about new government studies on the topic.

According to the piece:

Some parents do quietly allow their teens to have wine or beer at home occasionally, figuring that kids who drink in moderation with their family may be less likely to binge on their own. Many other parents argue that underage drinking of any kind is dangerous and illegal, and that parents who allow it are sending an irresponsible message that could set teens up for alcohol abuse in later years.

The former group would argue that it's inevitable that teenagers will experiment with alcohol and worry that a message of abstinence doesn't stand a chance against a barrage of social pressures and media messages glamorizing drinking.

Although the minimum drinking age is officially 21 in all 50 states, 31 states allow parents to furnish alcohol to minors and 30 allow minors to drink for religious purposes. In 7 of these 31 states, this is permissible only in a private residence. If teens don't learn to drink responsibly at home, some parents fear they will learn on their own, without any restraints.
Stanton Peele, a psychologist and author of books on addiction states, "There's a giant difference between a kid who gets totally wasted on some purloined booze in the woods with his friends, and someone who has wine at dinner with their parents or as part of a religious ceremony."

A survey of 6,245 U.S. teens, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004, found that adults play a very important role in teen drinking -- but in different ways. Teens who attended a party where alcohol was supplied by a parent were twice as likely to engage in binge drinking and twice as likely to be regular drinkers. However, teens who drank along with their parents were only one-third as likely to binge and half as likely to be regular drinkers.

"Underage drinking is not safe and it's not the case that somehow the risk is removed because the parents provided it," says Michael Hilton, Acting Deputy Director for Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Research suggests that alcohol can do long-term harm to developing brains. In the late teens and early 20s, the brain is developing its adult shape, pruning away unused connections and forming permanent pathways, particularly in areas involved in planning, decision-making and impulse control. According to researchers at the University of California-San Diego in the Journal of Clinical EEG and Neuroscience in 2009, "Brain scans have shown that heavy drinking -- 20 drinks or more a month -- in adolescents can create changes in the frontal cortex, the hippocampus and white matter, leading to decreased cognitive function, executive function, memory, attention and spatial skills."

Recently, the U.S. government has commissioned studies tracking how underage individuals gain access to alcohol. According to a report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly six percent of 12- to 14-year-olds -- some 700,000 middle-schoolers -- drank alcohol in the past month and nearly 45 percent of them got it at home, including 16 percent who obtained it from a parent or guardian.

According to Peter Delany, Director of SAMHSA's Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, "This report isn't designed to say, 'Bad parents!' It's designed to say, 'Here's an issue you should pay attention to.'" When kids below the age of 15 start drinking and drinking heavily, they are about six times more likely to end up with issues of alcohol abuse in the future. Dr. Delany suggests that parents discuss upcoming situations with teenagers. "You can say, 'There may be a lot of people drinking. Have you thought about how you're going to handle that?' Then really listen to their answers."

Experts say more research is needed to properly understand what puts young people at risk for alcohol abuse in later years and what strategies are best to discourage it. As with most nurture vs. nature situations, some children listen to their parents, others defy their parents' advice, and others combine all they hear and see and then do what they determine to be appropriate.

For me, the main message is that the more open lines of communication that exist with your child/teen, the better. Know your children. Be aware of how they react to your advice, who the primary influences in their life are, and what are they being exposed to in school, in the community and in the media. Ultimately, the more knowledge, education and preparation you and your teen have, the better the outcome.

HSS