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
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
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
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
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!).
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
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.
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