It's Only Beer!
Parental Denial about the Dangers of Beer and Alcopops Can Endanger Teens
Teen drinking leads to so many troubles and tragedies it is distressing that parents often fail to observe or understand initial symptoms in their children’s lives and behavior. Most parents are well aware of the increasingly grim army of statistics indicating that large numbers of teens are beginning to drink heavily as soon as they start middle school, and the devastating physical, mental, and social repercussions. Yet, fewer understand the social circumstances and common misunderstandings that allow young people to begin potentially lifelong problems with alcohol with just a few beers or alcopops. Getting an intimate understanding of the circumstances and pressures young people are exposed to can help families have open and effective conversations and rules about drinking.
Deciding on a Zero-Tolerance Policy
The common belief that beer or alcopops pose less of a danger to teens is dead wrong. These beverages have been shown over and over to be a rapid gateway for some teens, not only to the strongest alcoholic beverages, but also to drugs, criminal acts, and treacherous social behaviors—like teen sexual assault and rape. Teen alcohol tolerance is generally so much lower than that of adults that even these gateway drinks regularly get them perilously drunk in short order. When lower tolerance is considered in tandem with teens’ potential immaturity and lack of awareness of the myriad dangers impaired thinking brings, it is clear that alcohol cannot be tolerated in the lives of children.
It is easy to see why many parents allow their kids a beer at home or at a family event like a wedding or BBQ, especially if drinking is part of the family culture. Common misconceptions are that a drink with the family is fine because it lets teens get their first experiences with alcohol in a safe and supervised environment, helping them build their tolerance and taking away the alluring mystique of the forbidden. Also, it could often feel like it is the charitable and inclusive thing to do, if adults are having fun relaxing with a few beers together. However, this mentality can lead to confusion and a false sense of security and confidence for parents and teens. If your children are drinking with the family regularly enough and to the degree necessary to develop any kind of tolerance, they are not only developing a habit that they will almost always seek to continue on their own, but also gaining a perfect loophole to think and say, “It was cool with you when I had a beer with your friends, so why are my friends different?”
Forbidding teens from ever drinking alcohol even in the presence of family or on social or religious occasions is incredibly hard for even the best-intentioned parents. The truth is that making it completely unacceptable does increase teens’ curiosity dramatically, making it more likely that they will go to their friends and the unscrupulous people who buy alcohol for teen parties, putting them at even greater risk. However, there are effective ways to empower non-drinking teens to understand why and how to say no. A zero tolerance policy is vital in order for you to hold on to your ability to help your children avoid the hazards of underage drinking.
If you are ready to concede that your teens will do a significant amount of underage drinking, then taking the middle road may be for you. Yet, if you let them drink it can subconsciously turn their perception of the danger involved from roadblock to a speed bump. Even if you are clear with them that they may only drink when you offer it to them, it makes it a legitimate behavior for them in their minds. This makes it almost as easy for them to say yes when someone else they trust and admire offers them a drink.
Alcopops, Designed to Start the Trouble that Never Stops.
Alcopops are a commonly overlooked threat to keeping teens, especially girls, sober. Drinks like Smirnoff Ice, Mikes Hard Lemonade, and Sparks are made and marketed to get young teens started drinking. Because they taste similar to soda, deliberately masking the taste of alcohol from the taste buds, they go down easily. Young teens unaccustomed to the taste of beer and alcohol can get started without even thinking about it. Just as threatening, because they do not taste the alcohol many inexperienced drinkers often do not realize the alcohol’s effects until they are too tipsy to make clear decisions. Alcopops that include large amounts of caffeine, like Sparks, are especially risky—not only because the caffeine gets the alcohol into their blood stream even quicker, but also because the combination of the two makes for a hyperactive drunk who is even more likely to keep up the energy for reckless acts.
Parents should not need the plethora of pointed studies to see what the alcohol companies are up to. The advertisements feature attractive young women getting what they want socially, and are aired during TV programs counting on a teen audience. These companies know that if they can get girls to drink at an earlier age the guys will not hesitate to get alcohol for them. Even more appalling, if young teens can get alcopops, they can get cheap strong liquor. It doesn’t take long to move from the gateway drinks to the hard stuff. Just mix it with soda and it is like an Alcopop, but three times as strong.
Coming to Grips with Teen Drinking Culture
What many parents misunderstand is that most teens drink for very different reasons and in very different ways than their parents. Many adults who drink do so to complement a good meal or to just to relax after a long day or with friends. Most parents have learned by the time they have teenagers that setting out to get drunk is a mistake that usually leads to more mistakes. If not, this is something one hopes that they will address themselves. Essentially, by middle age most people have figured out how to be social drinkers long enough ago that they may lack a tight grasp on what it is like for teens beginning to drink under today’s different and more dangerous circumstances.
Even just drinking beer or alcopops, the vast majority of teens are not seeking to relax anything but their inhibitions—and those of the people around them. Let’s be clear, they are most often seeking to get wildly drunk. Young people are at such an increased risk of alcohol poisoning, not only because of their lower tolerance, but also because drinking until they deliriously throw up and pass out is so often seen as badge of honor in their peer groups. At the very least it is something to be laughed off and notoriously joked about for weeks, and repeated regularly.
Most parents who drink would be likely to see this kind of repeated behavior in their peer group as a grave sign of an unhealthy life and mindset. So it is easy to see why they may not fully realize that so many teens hold a directly opposite view, believing that getting drunk is a normal way to have a healthy social life.
If you have not seen plenty of examples that teens broadly look at drinking this way, you can ask people in your community who deal with the aftermath: police, school counselors, and most importantly, the teens in your life. Perhaps the easiest way to get a grip on this view is to take a few minutes to peruse legions of photos and stories young teens post on the internet of themselves falling down drunk, especially on myspace. Even if your kids and their friends have not done this, it is likely that a good number of young people at their school and in the area have.
Why do young people think and act like this so much more commonly now than was the case when their parents were kids? It is largely a subjective question. You can blame any combination of cultural changes. MTV, explicit music lyrics, and the messages young people get from the media doubtless play a major role. Parents are working more and are less able to spend time with their kids. The dramatically increased marketing of alcohol to teens, and the declining role of religious beliefs and community in young people’s lives have a pronounced impact on alcohol consumption. The parents in the Brady Bunch did not drink much but Homer Simpson sure does.
“It Was So Crazy . . .” Listening for the Self-Narrative of Teen Drinking
Since it is unlikely that parents can protect their kids from most of the circumstances of our changing times, it is critical that adults learn to listen to the stories that these conditions often spur young people to tell themselves and their friends over and over again, until they live by them. A general sketch of the part of these stories directly about drinking commonly sounds something like this:
“When we get drunk, crazy fun things happen, people do hilarious stuff and get to be themselves. People stop being awkward and just hook up. I’m having a new different kind of fun than when I was a little kid, because I’m totally different now and I really want to see what it’s like to party like a rock star. So I sneak out and get drunk when I get a chance—that’s what the people my friends and I want to hang out with do. Sure it’s a little insane. Thank goodness we don’t remember half of it.”
It would be surprising to hear this belief system articulated by sober teens talking to their parents, but if you log into a couple teen chat rooms you can observe them trumpeting it to their friends. The clearest fundamental way to prevent teen drinking from getting started is to be sure that they have a healthier self-narrative about alcohol to begin with, even about beer or alcopops. Once teens start to believe, personalize, and repeat, this kind of story, many parents feel they have to try to upend their teen’s world view and be a police officer 24/7 to make certain that their teens do not act out these frightening beliefs. Because these options are very difficult and painful for the whole family, and relatively ineffective, parents often slide into a middle path. Considering this dilemma, it is essential that you communicate openly and candidly with your children from an early age about not drinking any alcohol—not lecturing, but listening for their self-narrative.
Making sure your teens internalize, maintain, and act on healthy and responsible self-narratives on alcohol in the face of all the contradicting influences is so incredibly daunting you could write a book on it.
Fortunately, honest and practical books have been written; the books listed below are a good starting point. The principles that are perhaps most important include, first, to start very early. In this way, your kids are not simply bombarded with your guidance on drinking after they have began to be exposed to it, but rather develop a strong and safe personal-narrative on alcohol from a very young age. Second, don’t just say no. Work to find as many other empowering self-narratives to foster and say yes to. That way when your teens’ friends tell gushing stories about getting drunk over the weekend and then ask, “What did you do?” they can offer better alternatives, like, “I went mountain climbing with a bunch of really cool people. You should come next time.” Finally, don’t forget that from the moment of their births you have been your children’s greatest influence. Drinking around your teens, or allowing them to get started, can be as unwise as smoking around a baby.
Smashed: by Koren Zailckas; A young women passionately tells her own story of teen alcoholism and how she recovered. Well researched, and great to share with your teen.
A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: by Kenneth R. Ginsburg;
A wise resource for making your children confident enough to make good choices.