By Mary Christa Smith, Communities That Care Coordinator

We live in a society where drinking is a part of social events and celebrations of every kind.  As parents of children and teens, we consider the rules in our families regarding alcohol use. Family to family, there are many different norms and expectations regarding underage drinking. Some parents allow their kids to have a celebratory glass of champagne at a social gathering. Other parents allow their kids to drink at home in hopes it will help keep them safe, as opposed to drinking and driving. The reasoning goes, “at home, at least we can monitor what is going on”. Some families have hard limits such as “no drinking before the age of 21”. Other parents fear that if they set a hard limit, their children will rebel and drink anyway.

As a facilitator of the Guiding Good Choices class for parents, I have seen firsthand how varied the norms and expectations are amongst families. We spend the first 2 sessions discussing expectations regarding substance use. While the expectations may vary, the common thread amongst all parents is their love and care for their children and their hopes that the family rules will keep them safe and healthy.

When developing and communicating your rules related to alcohol with your kids, consider the following:
• Peak ages of brain plasticity happen just after birth and between the ages of 12 to 24. These are the most vulnerable times for the brain and the neuronal pathways it develops.
• Adolescent alcohol use can negatively impact the prefrontal cortex (an area prominent in adolescent development), which is critical for considering the consequences of actions. It can also affect the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. These are key areas of the brain for decision-making, memory, learning ability, and impulse control.
• 40% of kids who drink before the age of 15 will become alcoholics.
• In Summit County, 70% of the kids who report drinking alcohol, also report drinking at home with their parents’ permission.

In short, teen alcohol use hardwires the brain for addiction, setting the child up to be an alcohol dependent adult.

Here’s the good news. Parents are the #1 reason kids don’t drink. Believe it or not, teens still listen to their parents. In fact, kids usually listen to their parents more than anybody else, including their friends. In a recent survey on underage drinking, teens reported that parental disapproval is the number one reason they choose not to drink.

So, what can you do as a parent to support your child in being healthy and safe?
• CONSISTENTLY SPEND TIME TOGETHER HAVING FUN.
• EAT DINNER TOGETHER. KIDS WHO REGULARLY EAT MEALS WITH THEIR FAMILY (AT LEAST FIVE TIMES PER WEEK) ARE 33% LESS LIKELY TO USE ALCOHOL.
• SET CLEAR RULES. UNCLEAR RULES AND PERMISSIVE ATTITUDES LEAVE KIDS VULNERABLE TO UNDERAGE DRINKING.

Teenage drinking can have lifelong impacts on your child’s health and wellbeing. Consider the brain science as you set expectations with your kids. People who wait until the age of 21 to drink only have a 7% chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Waiting makes a difference.