Teenage drinking at Purim: Tale of the tape


With Purim approaching, we thought it might be helpful to consider the importance of speaking with your children about drinking. It’s an unpleasant topic, one that we parents might want to avoid in the midst of busy preparations for this happy day. Unfortunately, it has become necessary, just as we teach children to buckle their seatbelts in the car and wear their helmets when they ride their bikes.

As we have discussed previously in this series, teenage drinking is quite common. The most recent scientific survey across public and private high schools shows that about a quarter of eighth graders report drinking. Among high school seniors, well over half are drinking, with 43% endorsing that they were drunk at least once. Middle school and high school students report easy access to alcohol and tend to dismiss possible harms associated with drinking.

While these statistics are most likely higher than those to be found in our Jewish day schools and yeshivas, we would be foolish to assume that our teenagers — even those in the most sheltered of families — have not been exposed to alcohol and to deny that some of them are drinking too much.

Speaking with your children about alcohol use is not a one-time project but, rather, an ongoing discussion. Substance misuse is often in the news, providing “teachable moments” to begin discussions about drinking, though any time your child is relaxed will do. When children are younger (10 to 12), it is reasonable to simply convey the potential harm of alcohol use. As kids get older, however, parents might consider adopting a more flexible and open-ended approach. In addition to conveying factual information, parents should encourage teenagers to discuss some of their struggles with peer pressure, especially when they have friends already beginning to drink.

First the Facts…

One type of discussion is to help teenagers become more comfortable with the facts about alcohol. Teenagers should know that alcohol is a depressant, that it causes disinhibition and intoxication, and impairs thinking and coordination. Explaining that a 12-oz. beer is equivalent in alcohol content to a 5-oz. glass of wine, or a shot of whiskey will help dispel the myth that beer is a safe drinking option.

Teens often think that they can stop before becoming drunk. Yet one of the tricky things about controlling how much you drink is that alcohol harms the ability to judge impairment. And while eating during a drinking episode can reduce the speed of intoxication, there are no great tricks to remove alcohol more quickly from the body, which breaks down about one drink per hour.

Discussions about drinking should also include information about the harms of drinking and driving, especially since 10% of teenagers report driving while intoxicated. For example, teenagers should understand that while it takes about three drinks per hour to reach a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .08 (the level that a person can be arrested for driving “under the influence”), judgment and coordination is affected at much lower BAC levels. It turns out that well over half of all driving-related teenage deaths are due to alcohol.

In addition to drinking and driving, teenagers should understand other acute and long-term risks of drinking. Because alcohol reduces inhibitions, teenagers may say or do things that will be difficult to take back. Teenagers who drink are more often victims of crimes. At parties in which alcohol is served, teenagers will be more likely to use other drugs or be involved in other unsavory activity.

Alcohol use harms the developing brain in ways that we are only beginning to understand. Especially for those at risk, teenage drinking can lead to a lifetime of problems with alcohol. Some of these risks include a family history of substance use disorder, trauma, ADHD, anxiety or depression, and behavior or academic problems.

…Then the Feelings

Even as they convey the facts about alcohol, parents should also consider that the desire to drink may be a symptom of common adolescent concerns (like fitting in or asserting independence), routine anxiety (social worries or school pressure), or even more serious psychiatric issues (depression). We recommend engaging teenagers in ongoing discussions that offer space for them to express their feelings, worries, pressures, and (sometimes) misconceptions. For example, it is absolutely not true that all teenagers drink!

Family Rules Help

We strongly suggest that parents create family rules for drinking. Some family rules might include: 1) no drinking before the age of 21, 2) no attending parties where alcohol is present, 3) no getting into a car when the driver is drinking. If parents are comfortable permitting their older teenagers to drink under their supervision, like during a Shabbos meal or wedding, they should consider explaining to their children why they have created this exception.

Because most teenagers will be exposed to alcohol, parents and their teenagers can work together to develop strategies to manage high-risk situations. We often call this harm reduction, and it is not the same thing as giving permission to drink. One example is to make teenagers feel comfortable about speaking with you if they are feeling pressured, especially if they ultimately choose to drink. Another is to contract with your teenager to never enter a car when the driver is intoxicated, and to agree to call a parent if transportation is needed. Teenagers who you worry will drink at parties should be counseled to eat first, to space their drinks, to stay close to friends, to avoid risky situations, and to plan ahead for transportation needs. While these can be difficult discussions, rates of alcohol and drug use are far too high to remain silent.

The Relationship is the Thing

Any type of discussion about teenage drinking is most effective when it comes from a strong and caring relationship. The research is clear that a good parent-child relationship delays the onset of drinking and, once teenagers start drinking, reduces the chances of acute or long-term problems. It also goes without saying that these conversations are more influential when parents are responsible about their own drinking. Parents who become intoxicated in front of their kids, embellish the value of liquor, or glamorize past incidents of drunkenness, are unlikely to have much impact when speaking with their children.

The good news is that most teenagers who choose to drink now and then will do so without significant problems. However, if you suspect that your teenager is drinking secretly or may have a drinking problem, please contact his or her pediatrician, school counselor, or another health professional. According to our best statistics, you will find that you are far from alone. It is much better to address these issues sooner than later. Happy Purim.

Saving Lives Five Towns Drug & Alcohol Coalition welcomes our guest columnist, Michael Kidorf, Ph.D. Dr. Kidorf is a clinical psychologist, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Director of Education at Chayeinu. This article is reprinted with permission from magazine