Originally posted June 1, 2009
We've heard a lot about underage drinking and the consequences to parents who allow it to occur in their homes. The possibilities include probation, jail time, and, in the case of a Deerfield, Illinois couple, the regrettable grief of having had a hand in the deaths of two teenagers who died in a car crash which occurred after the teens left a party that took place in their home.
I have a hunch that more than a few parents followed the story of this particular tragedy, which occurred in October, 2006 and took the lives of Daniel Bell and Ross Trace, with an uncomfortable awareness that it could easily have happened to them. We try to be easy-going parents, always hip and cool, whose kids actually want to hang out at home with their friends. At least we'll know where they are, right? But some parents believe that drinking is an inevitable rite of passage for teens and prefer that their children party with their pals at home.
Proponents of 'social host liability' laws urge them to reconsider.
The debate about parents' responsibilities regarding their children's alcohol consumption, and especially about whether they should be held liable for other people's children if they imbibe in their home, rages on. I find myself feeling compassion for everyone touched by this tragedy and others like them, in spite of mistakes that were made and opportunities that were missed. Lessons can be learned which might save our own children sooner than we might realize. With Prom and graduation season upon us there is no time like the present to decide how we'll handle this with our own children.
But we parents really need to develop a strategy for dealing with the drug and alcohol issue years before prom-time.
In a recent study, 64% of eighth-graders said alcohol is easy to get from their own homes without their parents' knowledge, and 34% reported drinking at least once in the previous year. My advice? Talk early and often with your kids about substance use and abuse. Don't preach, but teach your children about drugs, alcohol and inhalants: what they look and smell like, and their permanent effects on developing brains, bodies, and emotional well-being. Ask your kids about their goals. Are they aware of how substances could interfere? Rehearse with them ways to respond to friends' invitations to use.
Be a good model. Kids will imitate our actions, regardless of our words. 'Do as I say and not as I do' just doesn't cut it. Also, realize that while it's important to cultivate an easy rapport with our kids, understand that they already have friends. What they need from us is parenting.
Devise and discuss family rules about substance use and consequences for breaking them, (and rehearse how you'll respond to your childrens' efforts to push the limits!). Suggestions:
Your kid wants to have a party? Great. Help him brainstorm alternatives to drinking and establish a few ground rules. Some possibilities:
*Agree on a guest list. No crashers allowed.
*If a guest brings substances or arrives under the influence, his parents or the police will be called.
You'll have greater success if you collaborate with other parents in devising common policies. This isn't so far-fetched when you consider what you may already do. You've made it your business to find out who your kid's friends are, know their parents, and provide adequate supervision for the kids in your home. Research tells us that unsupervised teens have more opportunities to experiment with risky behaviors and start abusing substances earlier. This includes the hours immediately after school, when many teens are unsupervised.
I'll never forget the advice of an old friend, a veteran mother of four. She encouraged me to team up with other parents and to just listen. Carpools are great opportunities. Just sit in the front seat and shut-up, like a good chauffeur should. Resist the impulse to interrupt or to raise a judging eyebrow, as you don't want to burst the illusory bubble of intimacy that exists in the world of your backseat. Simply pay attention. Enjoy the giggling about crushes, and notice who tends to lead and who is more inclined to follow. You might be surprised by what else you learn when the kids forget you're there. Consider the power of this 'zone defense' approach. It worked on the playground when you and other parents took turns watching the older children and tending to your babies, and it can work now.
As parents, we often feel powerless, somehow intimidated by the prospect of setting real limits on the substance abuse monster. We've seen what happens when we don't, though. Sometimes children die.
Parenting is a team effort. Together we can make a difference.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.