Worried. Stunned. Guilty.
These were just a few of the emotions I felt when I got a call that I needed to pick up my daughter. She’d been caught drinking at her school dance.
Up until that moment, I always thought of my daughter as the poster child of a “good kid” – AP classes, Varsity sports, excellent grades, volunteering, lots of friends. She had not exhibited the signs of a teen abusing alcohol (which I later learned she’d been doing for several months) and the changes I did observe, I previously chalked up to her acting like a teenager
That wasn’t the case though. I was wracked with worry about what this meant for her. I also felt guilty for not knowing that she was drinking alcohol in the first place. I kept asking myself, “How could I have missed it?!”
Finding the answers consumed me. I researched the web, read books, and consulted with experts, family and friends. What I found in my research could be summed up in one short phrase: Parcel your trust.
This can feel counter-intuitive and just plain wrong, I know, but there are scientific reasons for doing so. Specifically, from ages 13-25 years old, there are portions of the brain that drive risk-taking and develop impulsiveness before those that allow for cause-and-effect-type reasoning skills (the brakes). This developmental sequencing represents an important, hardwired function in the human species that creates the impetus to get out, explore, seek and find. Unfortunately, it is this sequencing during the developmental stage of a child that is very tough to parent.
So it becomes our job, then, to parcel out our trust by helping to structure their lives with boundaries yet still have some freedom to explore. As parents, we should help our child grow until eventually we let them take full control of his or her own life.
There were five important actions I took after my daughter was caught drinking.
1. Stop the sleepovers.
I found out that this is often when substance use occurs—AFTER the hosting parents go to sleep.
2. Set my alarm, get up and read a book in the living room, before curfew rolls around.
If teens cannot get away with calling out, “I’m home,” as they pass your bedroom door, they have an excuse to give their friends as to why they are not going to partake: “My mom/dad is a stalker—always up, grilling me when I get home.”
3. Point to the science
Explaining the science of adolescent and teen brain development, and its related risk factors, can be an entry to early conversations that will establish you as the expert and nudge their restraint thinking when problematic situations arise.
4. Avoid providing the opportunity to lie
Instead of asking “Have you been drinking?,” state your observation, “I smell alcohol on your breath. We’ll talk about this in the morning.” And, in the morning, stay calm, and say something like, “Please explain how you came to have alcohol on your breath last night.”
5. Find the time.
Sometimes their teen years seem to be all about rules, curfews, homework, and punishment. Try to set aside time (it could be an errand or getting ice cream at 9:30 p.m.) when you’re together with no lecture, no criticism, even if it’s just a comfortable silence.
Download the alcohol guide for parents
We break down the risks of underage drinking, why it appeals to young people and what you can do to protect your child from its harms.