Teens and Drinking

Posted Sept. 12, 2010, at 8:58 p.m.

It is not uncommon for parents to deny that their children are engaged in risky or illegal behavior. But, when it comes to teen drinking, this denial too often has tragic consequences.

A survey released last week by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse found that only about a quarter of Maine parents believed their teens ever had more than a few sips of alcohol. Two-thirds of teens said they had at least one alcoholic drink; three-quarters had by 12th grade. One-third said they’d had an alcoholic drink by the time they were 13.

The discrepancy was even worse when it came to the dangerous practice of binge drinking. Only 2 percent of parents said their children had engaged in binge drinking, defined as having more than five drinks in a row. Twenty-one percent of teens reported drinking this much in the past month, according to the 2009 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey.

As with the tricky business of sex education, advocating alcohol abstinence for those under a certain age is easy, but often not practical. Instead, a clear-eyed assessment of the prevalence of drinking among teens, even though such drinking is illegal, should lead parents to develop a sensible safety net for their kids.

Believe it or not, most teens strive to meet parental expectations. Research has shown that high school students who don’t believe they will be caught by their parents are three times as likely to drink alcohol, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Fifty-eight percent of the students surveyed last year said they were not likely to get caught by their parents if they were drinking.

To combat this, the Office of Substance Abuse recommends connecting with other parents to let them know your expectations and checking in often with children to know where they are and whether drinking is involved. Parents should also be awake and ready for their teens when they come home at night so the parents can talk to the teen if she’s been drinking. Consistent rules — which are enforced — are also key.

On a larger scale, a societal reconsideration of teenage drinking is overdue.

A couple years ago, with the health and safety goal in mind, more than 100 college presidents signed a letter asking state lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age to 18, where it had been in most states in the 1970s. Their argument, based on what they have observed on their campuses, is that students arriving at college are less likely to abuse alcohol if they have had some experience with it.

At some point, most young adults learn to give up drinking to the point of inebriation and instead use alcohol responsibly.

Getting to that point more quickly would be a benefit to all.

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