Underage Drinking: Parents and Teens Both Feel Peer Pressure
Inga Manskopf has heard her share of horror stories when it comes to underage drinking. She knows of a north Seattle boy whose friends left him unconscious in a pool of vomit at Magnuson Park – they ran when they heard the cops were coming to the kegger. She knows girls who have been date-raped while drunk. She knows families who have gotten the call – that one in the middle of the night – from the emergency room.
"It isn't enough to be a good parent," says Manskopf, coordinator of the Prevention Works in Seattle (formerly Northeast Seattle Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking), a group formed to prevent underage drinking, substance abuse, and associated problems through education, advocacy, and networking with students, families, and the community.
What Manskopf wants to yell from the rooftops is that one family's effort is not enough. This is just what longtime educator Marja Brandon, whose son was injured in a car accident, did when she wrote a letter to the community about the lesssons learned from the terrifying event. Both women agree that it takes a whole community to combat underage drinking: clearly communicating disapproval, enforcing existing laws, educating parents about risks and encouraging alternative ways for teens to party.
But what if that community does not agree on the "message?" Even if united in public, some may privately say that serving alcohol in their own homes to teens is safer than letting teens drink outside of homes. Brandon, who is head of Seattle Girl's School, calls this attitude a "dirty little secret" among parents and does not approve.
"I need other parents to respect my parenting," she says. Brandon feels that parents can serve alcohol to their own children, but when they make it available to other people's children, they cross a line. Joseph Califano, Jr., chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, agrees.
"Teen drinking and drugging is a parent problem. Too many parents fail to fulfill their responsibility to chaperone their kids' parties," Califano says.
In 2006, CASA conducted a survey that found one-third of teens and nearly half of 17-year-olds attended house parties where parents are present and teens are drinking, smoking marijuana or using cocaine, Ecstasy or prescription drugs. The survey also showed that 99 percent of parents said they did not approve of alcohol at a teen's party, but 28 percent of teens said they had recently been at a party where parents were present and teens were drinking.
Much of the focus of Prevention WINS is upstream from the riskiest high-school years, and designed to reach students while they are younger and more willing to listen. Middle-school parents have signed pledges to keep their homes alcohol-free for teen parties. Police have promised more attention to weekend keg parties. Community centers are hoping to program events that will steer teens away from keg parties.
Northeast Seattle is a relatively affluent part of the city, where most adults are college-educated. Yet the students here scored worse on measures of teen drinking than in other parts of the city and state; no one is sure why.
The 2006 Washington state "Healthy Youth" survey showed that an estimated three in 10 of Nathan Hale and Roosevelt high-school students reported drinking regularly by their sophomore year, and half by their senior year. These results were higher than in Seattle as a whole, King County or statewide, according to the survey, which the state conducts every other year to track health risks youths take, including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Update: the most recent Healthy Youth Survey data!
Teen alcohol use was high enough in north Seattle to spur the state Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse to award a four-year grant of about $130,000 a year to the Northeast Coalition. The grant pays for Manskopf's salary, as well as for that of a school counselor, Christine Talianis, who splits her time between Eckstein Middle School and Nathan Hale and Roosevelt high schools. And the grant also pays for special classes, where parents learn how to boldly talk about alcohol with their children.
Teens polled in the "Healthy Youth" survey also reported that their parents did not disapprove of underage drinking. Parents dispute that perception, but what is important to Manskopf is that the teens believe nobody will get them in trouble if they drink. Teens also admitted to binge drinking, defined as consuming more than five drinks in a two- to three-hour period.
J. David Hawkins, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at the University of Washington, studies teen behavior and how they handle alcohol. He helped design the very program that the coalition is using to encourage parents to talk to their children about booze. He thinks part of the problem parents have with setting limits is their own ambivalence about alcohol in their own lives.
Parents tell him they aren't sure how to bar their children from having alcohol while continuing to enjoy it themselves. They worry that teens will accuse them of a double standard. He argues that such a standard is entirely justified by the neurological evidence that the teen brain is more vulnerable to alcohol than an adult brain. He also says our community already allows for other kinds of graduated freedom in safety issues – such as with the graduated licensing program for driving.
Talking to children has proven to make a difference in how early those same children drink, and their statistical risk of becoming alcoholics, according to Hawkins and other social psychology researchers at the University of Washington, who designed the curriculum known as "Guiding Good Choices." The five workshops help parents understand the risks of alcohol, and how to discuss alcohol with children who are between 9 and 14 years old in effective ways. About 50 parents have received these classes free from the coalition.
Setting limits for young people, even if they don't adhere to them, seems to delay the age at which they drink. The later in puberty that teens are exposed to alcohol, the less risk they run of becoming alcoholics, Hawkins said. Brandon talks about the notion of persistent parenting, rather than thinking one discussion or one rule is going to prevent risky behavior.
"There is no family policy that they aren't going to break," she said. "But they need clarity of your expectation and … talking, debate and repeated discussion."
Sally James is a Seattle writer and the mother of three young adults.