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High School Drinking




My neighbors have parties for their teenage kids and provide a keg for them. They claim it’s okay because they take the car keys away and provide either alternate transportation or sleeping bags and air mattresses for a “sleepover.” They say it is better than having the kids sneak the booze. My daughter’s seventeenth birthday party is coming up and she wants me to do the same thing. What should I do?


I want my son to understand alcohol. I strongly believe that expecting him to wait until he turns twenty-one before he drinks is not realistic. He is now eighteen and I have decided to let him have a couple of drinks once in a while at home. We just don’t  want him to have his first drinking experience away from us. 


I want to give my son some tips on how to deal with peer pressure. Any suggestions?


With all the talk and headlines about college drinking, I have convinced my daughter – I think – to take responsibility for her own actions. She keeps asking me about how to turn down a drink if everyone is drinking. What can she do to fit in without taking all those drinking risks?




I was a member of my high school’s MADD group. I never drank and helped run a lot of drinking and driving educational programs at my school and in my community. When I hit college, boy was I in for a rude awakening. The third time I drank I got alcohol poisoning because I drank so much. I really was clueless as to what I was doing. I just wasn’t ready to drink. There has got to be a better way to teach kids about drinking than what’s going on in schools today.


I have been able to get through high school without drinking because I told everyone I was dedicated to my sports – basketball  and football. I am not so sure that will work in college. How do students who don’t drink make it through college?


As a parent you are faced with many challenges regarding alcohol consumption and your teen. Statements by your teen such as “everybody at school drinks” or “what’s the big deal” may need to be tackled. Even you as a parent can face peer pressure. You may have a neighbor who hosts “keggers” for teens thinking that, just by taking away the car keys, they are protecting teens from potential impairment problems. Your teen may not understand why you don’t do the same thing. But while those “cool” parents may help prevent alcohol-related car crashes, they seem to forget that there are other problems that need to be considered, such as alcohol poisoning, injuries, and risky sexual activity. 


Parents still have many chances to make a positive impact on their child’s life, and can ensure their child’s success by providing information on the devastating consequences of high-risk and underage drinking. High school and college can be a difficult adjustment for child and parents alike, but by keeping the lines of communication open and playing an active role in the child’s life, parents can ensure that their child makes healthy choices regarding alcohol.



Risks of Underage Drinking


Although teens may believe they wouldn't engage in risky activities after drinking, they must understand that because alcohol impairs judgment, an impaired drinker is not likely to see the risks of certain dangerous activities.


Share with your teen the following list of reasons to avoid high-risk and underage drinking.


  • Alcohol-related traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for 16- to 25-year-olds.

  • Alcohol use is also linked with teen deaths by drowning, suicide, and homicide.

  • Teens who use alcohol are more likely than others to become sexually active at an earlier age, have sexual intercourse more often, and have unprotected sex.

  • Young people who drink are more likely than others to be victims of violent crime, including rape, aggravated assault, and robbery.

  • An individual who begins drinking as a teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol.

  • Excessive drinking leads to a loss of physical control, including loss of balance, slurred speech, and blurred vision, that can make normal activities truly dangerous.

  • A teenager's brain is still developing and is very sensitive to the effects of alcohol on judgment and decision-making. High-risk alcohol use may cause the teen to say or do something embarrassing that could damage his self-respect and important relationships.

  • A family history of alcoholism may make a teen more vulnerable to developing a drinking problem. Teens with a family history need to know that drinking may carry special risks for them.



Drinking at Home


All states have laws that restrict a minor’s ability to obtain alcohol from commercial sources. However, numerous states also provide exceptions for alcohol served to minors by parents, spouses, and guardians. These exceptions seem to stem from the reluctance of the states to dictate the actions of individuals in private dwellings and within parent-child relationships.


Though less restrictive regulations on furnishing alcohol to minors in certain private settings have been enacted as a viable means of reducing underage drinking, many arguments opposing them reflect the attitudes of those that supported the nationwide increase of the minimum drinking age from eighteen to twenty-one in  the mid-1980s. Some of those arguments state that:


  • since the inception of the twenty-one-year-old age limit, alcohol-related car crash deaths have been reduced;

  • the earlier a person starts drinking the more likely he is to develop alcohol dependence at an early age;

  • teens who drink alcohol are involved in more problematic behavior, such as vandalism, violence, poor academics, and risky sexual activity, than those who do not drink;

  • alcohol consumption at an early age can impact brain development;

  • states that restrict underage drinking for family members in private residences send a much stronger message that underage drinking is unacceptable.


My opinion is that laws that allow parents to introduce low-risk drinking to older teens in their own family can contribute to a healthier attitude and understanding about alcohol. After all, young adults do not magically learn how to drink when they turn twenty-one. I am not suggesting, however, that full-blown “keggers” for your children and their friends are acceptable. As a matter of fact, I have clearly stated to the parents of neighboring teens that:


  • I occasionally offer my teens a drink and allow for low-risk consumption (see Low-Risk Drinking on page 64);

  • they can be assured that I will never offer or serve their underage children any alcoholic beverage;

  • I expect that they will never offer or serve my children any alcoholic beverage.


With regard to the arguments against serving alcohol in the home to an underage teen, I would just like to counter that:


  • while the increase in the drinking age from eighteen to twenty-one may have contributed to a decrease in drinking and driving deaths, the reduction may not be solely a result of the increase in the age limit. Other contributing factors may include the gain in notoriety of the designated driver program, the increased level of safety features on automobiles, an increased awareness of the contribution of drinking to alcohol-related deaths, and heightened enforcement of drinking and driving laws, including roadside checkpoints. Of course, any alcohol-related traffic death is a tragedy but, although difficult to measure, some research seems to indicate that many other types of alcohol-related teen deaths occur due to ignorance and a lack of awareness about the effects of alcohol;

  • there is little evidence of a causal relationship between a teen’s drinking at an earlier age and a higher incidence of alcohol-related problems. Many of the teen’s difficulties may have developed regardless of the alcohol consumption;

  • one study found that non-drinking adolescents are much more likely to learn about alcohol use and its adverse effects from their families and schools than are drinking adolescents who are more likely to teach themselves about alcohol or learn from a friend.


For further information about efforts to re-evaluate the nationwide twenty-one-year-old age limit, see page 17 and visit the site



High School Parties


Some parents believe that they can prevent alcohol-related problems by hosting parties themselves wherein they supply alcohol for their child and his or her friends, then simply take away everyone’s car keys. Restricting teens from driving after drinking at a party will minimize the risk for alcohol-related car crashes, but it does nothing to prevent other alcohol-related problems. In such a scenario, the parents’ lack of control over alcohol distribution, combined with the teens’ lack of understanding about alcohol and its effects, presents a situation in which the risks for alcohol poisoning, injuries, risky sex and other dangers increase dramatically. 


As a result of the many reported tragedies that have occurred around the country after parent-sponsored keggers – especially after prom parties – some states are now enacting social host liability laws. Although imposing civil liability on adults who provide alcohol to children is still rare, some states are increasingly turning to this method to hold parents liable for underage drinking in their homes. Adults may face penalties such as fees or, in the case of injury or serious disruption that occurs as a result of an adult’s provision of alcohol to a minor, stiffer fines and possible jail time. Advocates of these policies believe that continued efforts must be made to prevent children and teens from obtaining alcohol illegally, and that more stringent methods must be developed to restrict kids from drinking in private homes. 



Alcohol Agreement 


While parent-child conversations about drinking are essential, talking isn't enough – you also need to take concrete action to help ensure that your child resists high-risk drinking. Your values and attitudes count with your teen, even though he or she may not always show it. Establishing clear guidelines now will assist your teen in developing healthy decision-making skills that can last well into the college years and beyond.


Clearly state your own expectations regarding drinking and establish appropriate consequences for breaking the rules. Consequences should not be so harsh that they become a barrier to open communication, but they should distress your teen enough to make him or her think twice about breaking your agreement. Be sure to choose penalties that you are willing to carry out and that you are prepared to enforce consistently. If teens know that certain privileges will be lost each and every time an alcohol agreement is broken, they will be more likely to follow the agreement.  


Although each family has its own values and beliefs about alcohol, below are some suggestions to include in your alcohol agreement. 


  • Teens will not drink and drive.

  • Teens will call their parents if they or their friends have been drinking and need a ride home.

  • Teens will not consume alcohol illegally in another person’s home.

  • Guests may not bring alcohol into the home.

  • Older brothers and sisters will not encourage younger siblings to drink and will not give them alcohol.

  • Teens will leave teen parties if alcohol is served.

  • Parties in the home will always be chaperoned. 

  • Parents may not be actively engaged in a party, but will monitor it.

  • Parents will always be allowed to speak to the parents of other teens who may be hosting a party.

  • Parents will not provide alcohol for any of their teen’s guests.

At some point your teen may need a ride home after either he or she or friends have been drinking. Conversations and constructive dialogue can provide clear guidance for teens in resolving these situations. For instance, offering a ride to your teen without judgment, to help him avoid a drinking and driving incident, exhibits your support for him. Clearly, however, repeated incidents such as this may carry some future repercussions – but your support is vital.


See Appendix B for a sample alcohol agreement that you can modify and even sign with your teen.



Refusal Skills


Telling your sons and daughters what to do is a challenge – telling them how to do it is essential. Let’s face it: sooner or later they will be offered a beer at a party, or find themselves in a home where a bottle of booze is being shared. They will not only be offered a drink – they will be encouraged to drink.


Brainstorm with your teen ways to dodge a drink without making a big scene. It will probably work best for teens to take the lead in developing their own refusal techniques so that they will feel comfortable with them. 


Below are some suggested refusal statements that teens can use if they are being pressured to drink but really would rather not.


  • No, thank you…no, thank you…no, thank you…no, thank you. (Repeat until the person offering the drink gives up.)

  • Why is it so important to you that I drink?

  • I take my athletic (or academic, or musical, etc.) performance very seriously and don’t want anything to get in the way of my success. 

  • I have a test (practice, recital, work, meeting, class, date) tomorrow.

  • I am just getting over mono (or some other contagious disease) and I need to be careful. (Cough in the person’s direction when answering.)

  • Back off! (Or any other four-letter word you care to insert.)


The more comfortable your teen becomes using these suggestions now, the easier it will be to practice them while in college.


A Useful Tip

In a national survey of college students, approximately 10% of the respondents said they had carried around a drink to make it look like they were drinking even if they were not. Carrying a non-alcoholic drink or nursing a beer is one way to curtail the pressures from others.


Prevention Programs for High School Students 


Research on the effectiveness of family-based prevention programs is limited, so it is difficult to evaluate just what is the best practice in this arena. Evaluations of community-wide prevention programs have also produced somewhat inconsistent results, though most interventions seem to engender positive change. School-based prevention programs, too, have had limited success in reducing teen alcohol use. Based on the trends exhibited by a variety of prevention models, public health officials agree that a well coordinated combination of family-, school-, and community-centered prevention practices will be most effective.


Measuring the success of programs such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), and other peer education efforts is complicated. Considering the wide range of environments in which they are conducted makes isolating their effectiveness within those  environments next to impossible. I believe that even if they have only a marginal impact on alcohol use in the school or community, these programs still allow their members to find common ground in which to develop healthy relationships with other members and the peers they serve.



Alternatives to Zero Tolerance


We’ve all seen the consequences of irresponsible drinking, and read the stories in the newspapers about college students who risk alcohol poisoning during hazings or twenty-first birthday rituals, or who turn to alcohol as a “cure” for depression, or who drink themselves into a stupor at celebratory parties after the “big game.” The typical reaction to such stories has been to develop increasingly stringent zero-tolerance policies for underage drinking that involve:


  • tightening age-based restrictions on alcohol;

  • strengthening of policing efforts; 

  • mounting penalties for offenders; 

  • generating ideas to “quarantine” young adults.


But how do underage drinkers respond to these policies? According to David J. Hanson, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam, on his website Alcohol: Problems and Solutions (see Resources), the new “prohibition” is met with the same rebellion and “outlandish behavior” as the 1920s version. Although zero tolerance has had an effect on the number of underage drinkers, there is still a “sizeable minority [that] is drinking recklessly.” 


Dr. Hanson and other college administrators are now proposing an interesting and insightful alternative to the zero-tolerance policy: a provisional drinking license that, much like a provisional driver’s license, would allow gradual access to alcohol to underage drinkers. The assertion of this program is that a system that provides a “slow and safe introduction to an adult privilege” would teach responsible drinking behavior to young adults. Elements of Dr. Hanson’s program could include:


  • formal instruction about alcohol and its effects;

  • passing a licensing exam; 

  • time and place restrictions;

  • the possibility for authorities and parents to revoke or suspend the license;

  • keeping the current .02% BAC law for drivers under twenty-one.


Although a provisional drinking license may not deter some young people from high-risk drinking behavior, it could certainly have a positive impact on underage drinkers overall. As Dr. Hanson writes:


[For] the vast majority who are eager to learn but are denied any sensible opportunities, clandestine overindulgence could give way to public self-regulation, with the penalty for abuse being revocation of the privilege. Young people would learn to accept alcohol for what it is – a socially acceptable beverage in need of respect – rather than mythologizing it as a source of magical empowerment that increases with every gulp.


Another high-profile effort to address the questionable minimum drinking age of twenty-one is being developed by John M. McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont. He and a number of student assistants developed a nonprofit organization called Choose Responsibility (see Resources) to push for a lower drinking age. Choose Responsibility was established to stimulate informed and dispassionate public discussion about the presence of alcohol in American culture and to consider policies that will effectively empower young adults aged eighteen to twenty to make mature decisions about the place of alcohol in their own lives. 


The alcohol education curriculum proposed by Choose Responsibility includes topics such as:


  • the history of alcohol use in the United States;

  • international comparisons of drinking norms;

  • what is drunkenness?;

  • drunken driving and other negative outcomes;

  • responsible drinking, moderate drinking, and binge drinking;

  • alcohol and the brain;

  • the differences between younger and older adults;

  • drinking norms;

  • alcohol laws and penalties;

  • alcohol and choice.


Parents should be aware that many, if not most, high schools avoid progressive programs that teach students about alcohol. Therefore, parents cannot rely on schools to provide their teens with constructive education that includes information about “how to drink” and how to avoid problems if they do  choose to drink. 


Why the absence of effective alcohol education that includes this critical information? Some high school administrators have candidly voiced a fear of conducting such programs as they do not want to be viewed as educators who condone drinking and contribute to risky teen behaviors. Quite frankly, I believe the fear is unfounded. Schools and parents teach students how to drive without condoning illegal driving. Schools conduct sex education programs without condoning premature sexual activity. Educational programs such as those suggested by Drs. Hanson and McCardell – which not only highlight the problems associated with high-risk alcohol use, but also include information about how to drink at a low-risk level – can contribute to a reduction in high-risk alcohol use and the resulting problems of heavy drinking. The absence of accurate and applicable information delivered in an effective educational program for high school students is clearly a significant contributing factor to many of the problems faced by parents, high schools, colleges and, most importantly, students.

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