Alcohol and Teens

Why America's Alcohol and Drug Policies Do Not Work

By: Bradley P. Koffel, Koffel Brininger Nesbitt

Over the past 17 years, I have represented and counseled hundreds of local high school students and their families after an alcohol or drug related arrest.

I have interviewed countless teens and young adults privately in my conference room, read alcohol and drug assessments from their counselors, and I have listened to many, many caring and scared parents.

Not all teen drinking cases result in convictions. Recently, we were hired by the family of an 18 year old high school senior charged with "Permitting Underage Alcohol Consumption" a first degree misdemeanor. Our client's family owns land near a state park. Our client invited some of his friends to camp out. They showed up with alcohol and eventually police were called as a result of a "Noise Complaint". Our client was charged after officers found several underage people consuming alcohol. After two months of representation, the case was dismissed against our client based upon legal and evidentiary issues.

The anecdotal evidence is compelling: the scared straight tactics employed over the past 25 years have done absolutely nothing to reduce teen binge drinking, juvenile DUI arrests, alcohol-related accidents, and sexual assaults committed while under the influence. The United States spends more money on "alert and alarm" public service announcements and educational programs than any other country in the world. We are the only Western nation with a drinking age of 21. Europe, especially southern Europe, treats alcohol much differently in their cultures than the United States.

The paradox cannot be ignored. Despite lower drinking ages, introduction to wine in the home and religious ceremonies, and a message of tolerated moderation, these countries simply do not have the surreptitious, dangerous, binge drinking at the rate and frequency of the United States.

America's teens are good at detecting hypocrisy. In fact, they are really, really good at it. Hypocrisy is everywhere in the mixed messages teens receive about alcohol use. Our message to America's teens focusing on death, date rape, and DUI arrests (all true) is trumped by what kids see and hear every single day in their homes, on commercials, in the media, TV and movies glorifying the use of alcohol as a social lubricant.

The silent majority of parents just don't know what to do when they learn that their teen is drinking. They have been conditioned to think the worst. Many parents aren't sure if they should just serve the alcohol in their homes and keep an eye on the kids. Other parents ban it all together and put awesome fear into their kids if they are ever caught drinking. What is the answer? Is there an answer?

I believe our country is not quite ready for the answer. In my professional opinion, what needs to happen is an open, honest, safe conversation with America's teens about how to protect themselves from dangerous and excessive drinking. Risk reduction must be the central message. The most diligent parent is not going to prevent a 17 year old from drinking. We have become a nation obsessed with "zero tolerance" that we are failing to adopt simple precautions that can prevent dangerous decisions that may harm our kids forever.

Teen drinking without sober supervision tends to lead to abusive drinking, serious accidents, substantially reduced inhibitions (fighting, reckless driving, unprotected sex, sexual assaults, alcohol poisoning, choking on vomit, and blacking out). I am not suggesting parents start hosting teen drinking parties. In fact, Ohio laws are slowly changing for "Social Hosts" making it easier for parents and other Social Hosts in Ohio to be arrested, charged, prosecuted, and convicted of permitting underage drinking.

I do encourage parents to get educated about how truly prevalent the teen drinking is in our community. Start there. Then, implement your own risk reduction agreement with your kids. Reduce it to writing. Sign it. Have your teen sign it. If, however, you are going to have a zero tolerance policy about the use of alcohol, make doubly sure it matches reality with what your teen is doing when they are out with their friends. In my opinion, the only thing worse than not having a realistic teen alcohol policy in your home is having an unrealistic one.

The problem is this. When a teen is afraid to call for help because they have been drinking and are afraid of the consequences at home, then we have picked that wrong battle to fight. It is difficult to ask kids to turn to us for help at midnight if they are afraid of being punished for drinking.


By: Brad Koffel
I just finished reading an interesting article titled, "Parenting Style, Religiosity, Peers, and Adolescent Heavy Drinking" in the July 2010 issue of Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Two Ph.D.'s researched and studied parenting style, religion, and peers on teen drinking. What they found is quite interesting if you have a teen child.

First, they recognized the four established parenting types: authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful. Authoritative parents "tend to be high on support (warmth, nurturance) and control (monitoring, discipline)." Authoritative parents are demanding but also equally responsive and warm. Authoritarian parents "tend to be high on control but low on support. Their assertions and demands are not properly balanced with praise and genuine warmth."

Indulgent parents tend to be warm and supportive but provide relatively low levels of monitoring or direction. Finally, neglectful parents are low in both direction and warmth.

The researchers found that adolescents from authoritative homes were significantly less likely than adolescents from the other three types to have participated in heavy drinking or to have close friends who used alcohol. As expected, teens with a parent or parents who tend to be more neglectful had the had the highest odds of heavy drinking. Also, they found that religious teens were significantly less likely to drink or have peers who use alcohol.

The researchers were careful to point out that the parenting style is defined by how the teen perceives their parents, not how the parents perceive themselves. This is a very important distinction.

Finally, the researchers concluded that teens with authoritative parents (highly demanding and responsive) tend to monitor their children closely and provide high levels of emotional support and warmth. This parent is attuned to the emotional and mental needs of their child and foster a healthy relationship of trust and discipline. This type of parent may help diminish the likelihood that adolescents will choose risky forms of self expression such as heavy drinking even when they have peers who use alcohol.

In my professional practice, I've seen all four types of parenting styles and variations thereof. I encourage parents of teens to establish appropriate rules and policies concerning drinking, monitor all aspects of their teen's life, and enforce the rules while maintaining an appropriate level of trust. At the end of the day, there is only so much a parent can do with this difficult issue.