This month Westchester Parent takes a look at some of the most effective strategies local communities and parents are using to combat underage drinking. At any of the community forums where teen drinking is the topic, it is often mentioned that the parents who are not in attendance are part of the problem. It may be that they are not there because they do not view underage drinking in the same light as others at the meeting. Indeed, in any group of soccer moms, PTA participants, and community members, there is likely to be a variety of opinions on the subject of underage drinking, even among friends and neighbors. • There are parents who believe drinking is a rite of passage and therefore inevitable. They bargain with their kids and prefer them to drink at home, thinking that it’s safer. • There are parents who feel it’s best to de-emphasize alcohol by incorporating it into daily life as the Europeans do. They teach their kids to drink in moderation with family meals. • There are parents who think the legal drinking age should be returned to 18 because having to wait until 21 to drink makes alcohol the forbidden fruit. • There are parents who over-indulge in alcohol themselves. • There are parents who supply their teens with alcohol because they want to be cool and accepted. • There are parents who are in denial about what their kids are doing or have given up trying to deal with them. • And there are parents who, every day, let their kids know that they don’t want them to drink until they’re of legal age and that there will be consequences if they do. With so many divergent opinions, how can communities hope to bring about the “sea change” in attitude towards drinking that law enforcement, educators, experts and many concerned parents feel is necessary? It might help for parents to be aware of the following facts and statistics: • For parents who think it’s safer for kids to drink at home: Anyone who is caught serving or giving alcohol to a minor (who is not their own child) can be charged with a misdemeanor, sentenced to jail for up to one year and/or fined $1,000. If furnishing alcohol to minors leads to someone being injured, it can also result in civil liability. Bonnie Holmes, executive director of the Maryland Underage Drinking Coalition, has said, “Kids have told us over and over, ‘We laugh at these parents [who allow teenagers to drink in their homes] all the way to the next party. If we can drink in your house, why can't we drink at the park or at the football game under the bleachers?’” • For parents who believe the Europeans have the right idea: A report done in 2000 for the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems revealed that the French drink one-and-a-half times more per person than Americans and have a correspondingly higher death rate from liver cirrhosis. In France, alcohol is thought to be implicated in nearly half of all fatal traffic accidents, half of all homicides, and one-quarter of suicides, according to the French equivalent of the U.S. Institutes of Health. French youth, who can drink legally at age 16, have increased their consumption five-fold since 1996, and 12- to 14-year-olds are drinking and binge drinking. A multi-country study done in 1995, surveying young people in over 20 European countries, found that a greater proportion of young people began to drink at younger ages than in the United States and that more of them drank to intoxication than American young people. A 1999 survey revealed that in half of the European countries, drinking rates and drinking to intoxication among young people had increased even beyond the 1995 study. • For parents who believe the legal drinking age should be 18: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that the 21-year-old minimum drinking age law, instituted in every state as of 1988, has saved 20,043 lives since the 1970s. Since 1982, when NHTSA first recorded alcohol involvement in fatal traffic accidents, there has been a 59 percent reduction in alcohol-related traffic deaths among 15- through 20-year-olds, from 5,300 in 1982 to just over 2,000 last year. • For parents who themselves over-indulge in alcohol: According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information website, children of drinking parents are less likely to see drinking as harmful and more likely to start drinking earlier, which leads to greater alcohol misuse at ages 17 and 18. Children of drinking parents are also more likely to associate with peers who have tried alcohol at ages 10 to 11, which increases their risk for alcohol use and misuse. • For parents who want to be cool and supply alcohol to their own kids: A University of Minnesota School of Public Health study found that teens whose parents provide alcohol for parties were more likely to get drunk, get into traffic accidents, become involved in violence, and steal. A National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiology Study of over 40,000 people nationwide revealed that individuals who begin drinking at age 14 or younger are 12 times more likely (than those who don’t drink until age 21) to be injured under the influence of alcohol, 11 times more likely to be involved in physical fights after drinking, and 7 times more likely to be in car accidents due to drinking. And these statistics hold true not only when they're adolescents, but when they're adults. In addition, underage drinking contributes to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, and is linked to two-thirds of all sexual assaults and date rapes among teenagers and college students. • For parents who are oblivious to what their children are doing or have given up trying to deal with them: Child Protective Services (CPS) can be called in to investigate if parents are negligent towards their children. CPS may come to a home if police have found a situation that raises questions about the appropriateness of parental behavior in relation to the children. • And for parents who are struggling to communicate their expectations and hold the line, the experts advise: Keep on talking to your child about your feelings about underage drinking and your reasons for them; keep working to establish guidelines; and make sure to mete out effective consequences if kids violate them. Get to know your child’s friends and their parents, and call them when you have questions about a social gathering. The more parents do this, the more natural it will become. If you know of a house where alcohol was made available to kids and want to report the parents but find it impossible because of delicate social relationships, at least try to talk to those parents about your concerns — eventually parental peer pressure may make an impression. Aside from taking precautionary measures, be sure to support and enjoy your kids and do things together as much as possible.
Even though it’s difficult and sometimes exhausting to struggle with our adolescents as they are influenced by their peer culture, we must not give up. There is a growing consensus in our communities that we can and must fight the prevalence of underage drinking. More groups are sharing information and trying to integrate strategies to deal with the problem, and law enforcement is drawing clearer lines to help parents. Teen drinking is not inevitable. As District Attorney Jeanine Pirro concluded at the countywide conference on underage drinking at Manhattanville College last November: “Just think about how our attitudes have changed in the last 10 years towards cigarette smoking or ‘having one for the road.’ Bringing about a sea change in underage drinking is possible, too.”