My Friends Serve Underage Kids Alcohol. Should I Speak Up?

This post was originally published on this site

Our Adolescence columnist, the psychologist Lisa Damour, responds to a reader’s question. The question is lightly edited and is being published with the consent of the person who submitted it.

[To submit a question, email]

Credit…Lilli Carré

Q. My longtime friends and I have college kids coming home for the holidays and we have different attitudes toward underage drinking. I know college kids drink — mine does. But I worry about the message it gives when my friends happily serve them alcohol. Do I just stand by silently watching them enable risky behavior?

A. Your question raises two key topics in the parenting of teenagers and young adults: Should we serve alcohol to our own underage children? And should we weigh in on other parents’ choices on this matter?

While you already know where you stand on the first question, many other parents wonder whether they should offer alcohol to their own adolescent children. On this topic, to be sure, reasonable people disagree. Whatever choice a family makes, the parents should capitalize upon it to have valuable conversations at home.

Those inclined to serve their own underage children can actually do so legally in the 31 states that allow adults to furnish alcohol to minor family members. If you live in one of these states and go this route, consider mentioning to your teenager that these laws recognize an important point: The dangers of alcohol often have more to do with how and where alcohol is consumed than with the alcohol itself.

Tasting wine or having a few sips of beer while with one’s parents is almost certainly safer than drinking — much less drinking a great deal — while with other teenagers. To drive this point home, you might say, “Alcohol impairs your judgment. It’s O.K. to have a few sips when you’re with us because you will be safe even if you’re not at your sharpest. But you need to keep all of your wits about you in situations, such as teenage parties, where there are many forces beyond your control, or that could easily get out of control.”

Parents who choose not to serve their own adolescents have a different point to make. Research links drinking at a young age, particularly when it involves regular use or becoming intoxicated, to alcohol misuse in adulthood. While underlying factors, such as a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism, might account for both early heavy drinking and higher rates of alcohol abuse in later life, there’s also a direct causal explanation worth noting. The experience of pleasure is known to be especially intense during adolescence, and this can include the sensations associated with alcohol.

To address this, parents might say to their adolescents, “Right now, your brain is wired to really enjoy things that feel good — including how alcohol might make you feel. We can’t know if drinking as a teenager will, or won’t, make you want to repeat that experience and lay the groundwork for a drinking problem. So we’re going to play it safe for now.”

Whether you decide to serve your own teenager or not, make it clear that nothing matters more than safety. Consider saying, “You know where we stand on drinking, and we hope you’ll follow our rules. But if you ever find yourself in a position where you could get hurt — perhaps you’re at a party that’s gone wild or you don’t have a safe ride home — know that we’ll be there for you in a heartbeat if you need our help.”

Regardless of what parents choose when it comes to providing alcohol to their own adolescents, there are many good reasons not to serve alcohol to other people’s kids. For one thing, it’s illegal to do so, and the legal consequences for providing alcohol to underage drinkers who aren’t your relatives (or making it possible for them to consume it on your property) can be severe.

So, to the final part of your question, should you say something to your friends about the fact that they serve their own and other people’s adolescents? As for their choice to serve their own children, I’m sure you know that people rarely welcome unsolicited advice. If you want to preserve your friendships, you may have to keep biting your tongue and accept that adults are, with few exceptions, allowed to raise their children as they please.

But if your friends are serving your underage child, you have more room to work. One option might be to say, “I find myself in a tricky position. You know that I’m not O.K. with underage drinking, and yet you’re serving my kid. I care about your friendship and value the connection between our families and don’t want this to get in the way. Can we talk it through?”

Alternatively, or in addition, you might say, “I assume you know this, but I just want to make sure: If something goes wrong — if a teenager drinks at your house and then gets into an accident on the way home — you could be held responsible. I worry about the kids, but I also worry about you ending up in a bad spot.”

In parenting, we and our children will inevitably come across adults who have different rules than we do on any number of topics. While it may or may not be worth it to confront other parents about their choices, we can capitalize on these differences of opinion to talk with our teenagers about the parenting decisions we’ve made and why.

This column does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.