Proms, graduations and being an uncool parent

Graduation and prom season is here, along with parties to celebrate the important milestones. This is the time of year when parents face a perennial challenge: whether to serve alcohol to underage partiers. An avoidable drinking and driving tragedy stuck my hometown when I was in college, and had a huge impact on my parenting.

It shaped my commitment to never host an underage party with alcohol. Maybe I’m uncool. That’s okay.

 
 

A family hosted a keg party for the graduates of my sister’s high school class. As a result, a car crash took two promising lives over the course of a few years. The parents collected car keys and decided who was sober enough to drive home before handing the keys back. As one graduate was getting into his car with his date, another guest struck and killed him.

The car accident happened in seconds. The pain and trauma continues to this day. One boy died that night. The driver took his own life a few years later, before finishing college. It was too much for him to bear.

Parents, siblings,  family and friends dealt with loss in their own ways. I can only imagine the horror of the girlfriend and witnesses. There were investigations, lawsuits and fallout in the community.

My kids never stood a chance at convincing me to host a party with alcohol. I wasn’t budging.

Times were different then. The drinking age was 18 when this happened. Teen drivers are particularly at risk when drinking. As a result, the national drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 in 1984.

It doesn’t matter what the drinking age used to be. It doesn’t matter when parents began drinking, legally or not. When teens are pulled over with alcohol, police will enforce the laws. In many states, there’s an  automatic license suspension for underage drinking and driving. And it will certainly result in increased insurance premiums.

Handing over the car keys to a 17 year old is a privilege earned by showing good judgment and respect for both the laws of the state as well as house rules.

Raising kids to adulthood is a long and challenging process, beginning when they are quite young. We need to start the conversations about smart and safe decision making long before alcohol enters the picture. Kids are listening to what you say. Even more, they are watching what you do.

 
 

A few facts about teen drinking:

  • 10 percent of 12 year olds have tried alcohol. That’s nowhere near the legal drinking age. About 70% have tried alcohol by the time they are 18.

  • Drinking often begins socially.

  • 52% of 12-20 year olds report that they drink in someone else’s home.

  • 34% report that drinking happened in their own home.

(source: SAMHSA Too Smart To Start)

These stats assure me that my husband and I were actually not in the minority. They also serve as an excellent reminder to know your kids, know their friends, and know their parents as best as you can. Stay involved with your children.

Teen brains are still developing, making them much more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. The earlier that kids begin drinking, the higher their odds for future alcohol problems.

Many teens take prescribed anti-depressants. Parents and teens are often not aware that some of these medications will multiply the effect of alcohol. One drink can have the effect of several.

There’s simply no way to know the short or long term alcohol vulnerability for each child. And there is absolutely no way for parents throwing party to be aware of the hidden factors which increase risk for guests. 

Binge drinking is common. It can result in alcohol poisoning which can be serious enough to be fatal. Passing out is not the same as alcohol poisoning, which requires emergency medical care. Call 911. Unfortunately, many people make the assumption that letting someone sleep it off is safe. Too often, overly intoxicated kids never wake up, and we hear about another death from alcohol in the news.

As you navigate the high school and college years, please remember that having safe conversations with your kids is key. Here are a few things to consider about teens, responsibility and alcohol.

  • Begin talking together about alcohol when children are young, before alcohol use begins.

  • Be a solid role model, and demonstrate responsibility with alcohol. 

  • If there’s a family history of abuse or addiction, let kids know of their increased risk.

  • Alcoholism is a disease, not a weakness.

  • Create a safe and supportive atmosphere for communicating

  • Listen! It’s easy to lecture, but it’s crucial to listen to what they are saying.

 
 
  • Understand teen risk factors (early drug or alcohol experimentation, ADD, impulsive or risk-taking behavior, family history, trauma, use of certain prescription medications, peers, bin).*

  • Make sure that alcohol is not accessible.

  • Know your kids friends.

  • Be the home that their friends like to hang out in. Feed them. Serve lots of cookies.

  • Discuss realistic expectations.

  • You’re the parent, not the BFF.

  • Come up with a safety plan so they can to leave an uncomfortable situation - perhaps a code phrase to ask for a safe ride home.

  • If you have a “call, no questions asked policy,” uphold your end of the bargain if they call you for a ride or assistance so they know you can be trusted.

  • Know where your children are, and who they’re with.

  • It’s easier to make smart decisions when sober than when under the influence! Saying no is easier before the first shot of vodka. It’s a lot harder to say no after a few.

I was the uncool parent. I’m happy to say that our family survived and thrived anyway. I heard that “everyone’s parents” buy kegs and allowed unchaperoned shore weekends. While many did provide the party house, many others in fact did not.

My daughter insisted that nobody would come to her graduation party without beer because everyone would go to the homes with kegs. I asked her how true that really was. She was SO sure that was true. We gave her a choice: a party without alcohol or no party. She chose no party, and that’s the way it went (in case you’re wondering how I could be so cold-hearted, we did still celebrate with a special dinner out with relatives).

Personal values are like the parenting north star. Some parents told me to lighten up. I know that any kids who want to party will find a way. But not in our home. I heard that “everyone else’s parents are letting them…”

 
 

Parenting decisions can be tricky, but when I stayed aligned with my values, I made choices that felt right. I honored my commitment to the lives lost and broken so many years ago in my hometown by saying no underage parties with alcohol. My goal is to raise independent and responsible children to make wise choices. I was comfortable knowing that I was walking my talk.

I’m passionate about helping parents along the complicated journey of raising children. I’d love to hear from you if you are struggling with this issue. You are not alone. What’s stressing you out about teen partying? How would it feel to be supported through this challenging parenting journey? Let’s talk! Please leave a message or email me at denise@denisefountain.com.

MYTHS PARENTS BELIEVE ABOUT UNDERAGE DRINKING

“It’s safe. I’m supervising."
"I partied. How can I tell them not to?"
"They need to learn to drink responsibly before they head off to school."
"They’re adults. 18 is old enough to vote and join the military."
“Everyone else is doing it.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“I know not to let it get out of control.”
“I can tell when they’ve had enough.”
“Let them sleep it off.”
“They know when to stop.”
“I survived.”

 

Denise Fountain is a Life Transitions Specialist and Certified Professional Coach. She works with women going through transitions to rediscover themselves and create lives that are happy, healthy and whole again. Together with her clients, she explores the connection between stress, health and happiness, and guides her clients to move forward to make lasting and sustainable changes. She is passionate about helping women live their best lives. Sign up for updates while you’re on this site! Contact her at denise@denisefountain.com to learn more about how Denise can partner with you to create the life you dream of.