An Open Letter to My Son about Drinking

When my now 22-year-old son, who will be a senior in college next year, was entering 10th grade, I started getting a lot of questions from family and friends. They wondered how I was going to handle his inevitable experimentation with alcohol. When I expressed the idea that Tom might decide not to drink until he was 21, I was accused of living under a rock. It was just assumed that my son would drink, no matter what I thought or said. When the subject came up with other parents, a frequent response I got was, “I don’t want my kid to drink, but of course they will.” Or, “Kids will be kids,” And my personal favorite, “Well we did it when we were their age.”

 

Really? Is this the criteria we are going to base our parenting on? I’ve always felt it’s my job as a parent to set the boundary and my kid’s job to test it. Because I’m a writer and blogger, I decided to write my feelings about this in a letter to my son. 

 

I wanted Tom to know where my husband and I stood on engaging in behaviors that are at best risky and at worst illegal or life-threatening. I joked that at least he could never say he didn’t know how I felt. I expected some people to disagree with me. I knew members in my own family, including my dad, did. But I never expected the letter would go viral, being shared hundreds of thousands of times. And that even seven years later, I would still on occasion be contacted about it.

 

A few weeks ago Tom and I were discussing the fact that he did choose not to drink until he turned 21. I never thought my letter was a real factor in his choice. I thought it had more to do with having friends that just weren’t into drinking.  

In fact even though they are now over 21 and can legally drink, alcohol just isn’t a big part of their lives. 

 

So I was surprised when he said that the letter did play a part in his choice. Well not the letter as much as what it represented. Tom knew exactly how we felt. We had many honest discussions about the dangers of drinking, especially the dangers of binge drinking. But the letter was a tangible reminder.

 

I want to be very clear, I don’t think I’m a good parent because my kid didn’t drink before he was 21. And I don’t think someone is a bad parent if their kid does choose to drink before the legal age. I do think our kids deserve a clear answer on how we feel about underage drinking. And if it’s a behavior we don’t want them to engage in, I think we should tell them. 

  

 

Dear Tom,

 

The legal drinking age in this country is 21. Please know that dad and I will never allow you to have alcohol in our house or in our presence until you reach that age. Please also know that no good has ever come from a group of teenagers drinking. It’s a recipe for all kinds of disasters. If you should choose to drink, you’ll not only be breaking the rules of our house, you’ll be breaking the law. If you get stopped for driving under the influence, or the police get called to a party where you have been drinking, you may be in a position where we can’t protect you.

 

Always call me and your dad. ALWAYS. No matter what you have done. Don’t ever follow up a bad choice with one that’s worse just because you’re afraid of disappointing us or making us angry. Will we be happy? Of course not. But we would much rather get you and any friend who wants to come with you home safely, than get a call saying you are NEVER coming home.

 

Let me be clear that the fact that we love you and will stand by you does not in any way mean we will stand by while you do things that you know aren’t good for you. There are those who will tell you that your parents are being unreasonable and totally unrealistic. Some may tell you that you are a teenager and it’s a rite of passage to get drunk. They may even regale you with stories of their own youthful mistakes.

 

Listen to your own heart and trust your gut. Also know there is nothing cool about waking up in your own vomit, or having a DUI before you are 18. Your father and I are so proud of the man you are becoming. We love you so much that we don’t care if you hate us. That’s our gift to you — we are your parents, not your friends.

 

Always,

Mom

Kathy Radigan is a writer, blogger, mom to three, wife to one, and the one time owner of a possessed appliance. She is the creator of the blog, My Dishwasher’s Possessed! Kathy’s work has been featured in HuffPost, Scary Mommy, Yahoo, Her View From Home, TODAY Parents, Romper, and many other online publications. Her new project is sharing her experience as a parent to a daughter with special needs on The Special Needs Nest by Kathy Radigan.

The Results are In! New 2020 Data and Looking to the Future

Local Data on Substance Use Declines

The Missouri Student Survey is conducted on even-numbered years and tracks risky behaviors of students in grades 6-12 attending public and private schools in Missouri. The survey, conducted jointly by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, asks youth a variety of questions on health and safety issues. County summaries of the 2020 results are available to view here

From the summary view, the new data is uplifting. Youth across Clay, Platte and Ray Counties are using alcohol, tobacco, e-cigarettes, and marijuana at rates lower than the state average.  The past 30-day use rates of these substances is also lower than what was reported in 2018.  At Parent Up, we are excited to see this downward trend!  We can celebrate that our youth are using fewer substances and that our prevention programs are working to make a difference.

Substance Use Harms Young Brains and Can Lead to Addiction

On the other hand, we still have plenty of work to do to protect area youth.  A study from the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 9 out of 10 people who are addicted to nicotine, alcohol or other drugs began using these substances in their teen years.  This statistic is backed by science and research that reveals the vulnerability of the adolescent brain to substance use.  Because the human brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s, vaping, drinking alcohol, using marijuana or misusing medications during the teen years can disrupt and damage brain development.  Substance use prior to age 18 is linked to an increased likelihood of brain damage, addiction, and mental illness such as depression or suicidal ideation.

Preventing the Disease of Addiction

Prevention science points to multiple strategies that prevent the early use of alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs.  Policies that reduce availability and marketing of substances to youth are important in reducing access to youth.  Strong community and family attitudes and expectations that discourage underage use are also proven to decrease the chances that a child will begin using alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or prescription drugs in the teen years.  Establishing strong relationships and connection between teens and adults, providing opportunities for healthy risk, and monitoring and supervision are also proven to decrease the likelihood that a child will engage in risky behaviors like substance use.  These strategies,especially when coupled together, will help ensure that youth substance use rates continue to decline.  Follow along this year at Parent Up as we work to ensure that parents and our community CARE, CONNECT, COMMUNICATE and pay CAREFUL attention to our kids so that we can delay the age of first use of alcohol and other drugs, and protect future generations from the devastation that comes from addiction!

What are We Teaching Our Kids?: How to be a positive role model when it comes to alcohol


“Role Modeling is one of the most powerful tools you have in your parenting tool belt to influence the direction of your children’s character, whatever their age.”

–The Center for Parenting Education

My nine year old is my little shadow.  She wants to be wherever I am, sit next to me at every meal, and raid my closet for her latest fashion creation.  As frustrating as it can be at times, I am happy to have my little shadow!  See, I also have a 13 year old who was socially distancing before it was cool.  The truth is that both my little shadow and my distant teen, like all kids, learn and mimic their surroundings.  

Well into adulthood, our kiddos closely observe us as we manage our relationships, work, our health, and more. They note how we handle stress and whether we treat others with respect, show patience, act generously, and overall practice what we preach. And they tuck all of this away to use as they navigate their own lives.

Our use of alcohol is no different. As parents, role modeling when it comes to alcohol consumption is key to protecting our children from the risks associated with underage drinking.

Some well-meaning parents believe that letting their children drink at home helps them develop an appropriate relationship with alcohol. Research suggests otherwise— in fact, adolescents who are allowed to drink at home drink more heavily outside of the home. In addition, adolescents whose parents have specific and strict rules against underage drinking (and also drink responsibly themselves) are less likely to drink heavily outside the home.

So whether you have a shadow, or you always live life 6 feet apart, how can you model responsible drinking as a parent? Here are some guidelines:

  • Explain to your child why alcohol is for adults only. Let them know their brain will continue to develop well into their twenties, so the legal age of 21 helps protect their health.  Communicate your strong stance against drinking before this age, and talk about your consequences for your child.
  • Be a role model. If you drink alcohol, be mindful of how much and why you drink and what messages you might be sending to your children. Do not involve your children in adult behaviors.  Restrict them from touching, sipping, mixing, or fetching alcohol for adults.  It’s always a good idea to have a sober caregiver or parent present.
  • Control the context.  As adults, we shouldn’t talk about drinking as a way to manage stress around kids — for example, “Today was terrible. I need a drink!”  Instead, we should model healthier ways to manage stress like exercising, practicing deep breathing, or talking things over with your partner.  We can put words to these actions and make the connection clear for our kids!  For example, “Whew, I had such a stressful day!  I’m going to go take a walk to calm down and unwind.”
  • What if you drank as a teen?  If you choose to share that you drank as a teen, be sure to admit that it was a mistake and give examples of negative experiences that resulted or could have resulted from it. If your child asks you this question, a great response is “I did have a drink when I was younger. However, we didn’t know as much as we do now about the risks of alcohol. If I had known then, I would have done things differently. This is why I am talking to you about it. I want you to be safe, healthy, and happy.”
  • Practice what you preach:  Never drive when you’ve been drinking or get into a vehicle with a driver who is impaired. You wouldn’t want your child to, so don’t do it yourself.  Designate a sober driver in advance if you plan to drink.
  • If you have alcohol in your home, be sure to secure it away from kids and teens. 

To learn more about alcohol and your health, visit the CDC’s FAQ page for alcohol. For more tips and tools for preventing underage drinking or talking to your child about alcohol and other drug use, check out our Parent Up Tools page! 

Tiffany (Van Sickle) is a parent of two amazing kiddos, and has been working to prevent youth substance use for 5 years.  She currently serves as the Program Director for the Park Hill Community Alliance for Youth (CAFY).

8 Warning Signs That Your Child Has Been Drinking

Alcohol is the most commonly used and misused drug among youth in the United States.1 And according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there were approximately 10 million underage drinkers in 2010.2

As a parent, you want what’s best for your child, which is why it’s important to proactively prevent them from drinking. But how can you tell if your child has been drinking or experimenting with alcohol? Sometimes, it’s not always as obvious as you smelling booze on their clothing.

Warning Signs To Look Out For

Here are a few common changes in your kid’s physical appearance and behavior that may be warning signs that they have been drinking:

  1. Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability, and defensiveness
  2. School problems: poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action
  3. Pushing boundaries: rebellion against family rules
  4. Friend group changes: switching friends and a reluctance to let you get to know the new friends
  5. A “nothing matters” attitude: sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and general low energy
  6. Alcohol presence: finding it in your child’s room or backpack or smelling alcohol on his or her breath
  7. Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech
  8. Secretiveness: reluctance to share their whereabouts

Although these signs may indicate a problem with alcohol or other substances, some also reflect normal growing pains, which is why it’s important not to jump to conclusions. However, if you notice several of these signs at the same time, if they occur suddenly, or if they are extreme in nature, it may be indicative of a drinking problem. 

What To Do If Your Child Has Been Drinking

Remain calm – While it may seem difficult in the moment to stay calm, it’s important not to immediately jump to conclusions or play the blame game. Let your child know that you are aware that they have been drinking, then take some time to settle down, to ease out of whatever shock, anger, or powerlessness you may be feeling.

Talk about what happened –  Listen to your kid, gathering information about their perspective of what happened, why, and what they think now. Through their own processing, your child can decide alcohol is bad for them on their own.

Help them understand why alcohol is harmful to them – Explain to your child the dangerous long-term effects of alcohol. Make it clear that you’re not just being irrational and emphasize your concern for their safety.

Identify steps for future prevention – Having reflected on the situation, it’s time to partner with your kid for the future. What consequences are necessary now and what can be put in place to break the pattern for next time? 

And Remember…

It’s important to remember that this is not a one-time discussion, but rather an ongoing conversation. Keep an eye on your child and check in with them regularly, because young people are more likely to drink if they think no one will notice. 

Parent Up is here to help. Check out our collection of online tools and resources for more facts on drinking, tips for starting a conversation with your child, and tips on how you can prevent underage drinking.

Sources:
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2007.
2. https://www.addictioncenter.com/teenage-drug-abuse/underage-drinking/

 

What To Do If You Find Out An Adult Is Providing Alcohol

Mother comforting her son

This month, Laura Bruce, describes a dilemma parents commonly discuss with her in her role as a prevention specialist.

“There were two kids passed out on the couch.”


This is what my son just told me. It was one of those special moments when my teenager actually opened up to me about his weekend and his friends. He was vulnerable, and I could tell that he was scared I was going to get really mad. I tried really hard to maintain composure, just listening, waiting for him to tell me more. He explained that he didn’t drink but all his friends did, some of them drinking so much they passed out. I ask about the parents, and he shared that they were upstairs and they knew that everyone was drinking— it was the parents who bought the alcohol. Then he went quiet–he really didn’t want me to dislike those parents or his friends. I consoled my son, thanking him for confiding in me and telling him I was so proud for not drinking. I told him that he can always call me if kids start drinking and I’d come get him ASAP. I gave him a hug.


Phew. My heart pounded as I left the conversation. On one hand, my kid was fine. He did the right thing and I’m so glad he was honest with me. On the other hand, I was furious that this parent provided alcohol to MY kid and his friends. Didn’t they know they were setting up kids for a host of immediate and long-term problems?  

Nancy B. Kansas City, Missouri

Alarming Stats

In my job as a prevention specialist, I hear stories like this from parents all the time. They’re angry that the providers of alcohol are other adults or parents who should know better.

The alarming truth is that kids in the Kansas City Northland rarely get alcohol from retailers; their source is usually older friends or family members. In the Missouri Student Survey conducted in 2018, 62.2% of adolescents claimed to have acquired alcohol through a friend, while 41.6% stated that they got alcohol through family members. And while parents may think they’re doing the right thing because they’re “supervising” the situation, the reality is that they’re contributing to the problem.

Now What?

As a parent, the steps you take today will have a profound impact on the health and future well-being of your children. That’s why it’s crucial to speak up and play a proactive role in preventing underage drinking. Parent Up provides a ton of resources for having conversations with your child about underage drinking so they’re more likely to make the right decision in the moment.   

If you find yourself in a sticky situation similar to Nancy’s in the story above, you may feel conflicted on what to do. Here are a few approaches you can take if you discover that other adults or parents are providing alcohol or allowing underage drinking:

  • Call law enforcement
  • Contact the adult directly
  • Notify your school or other parents

If you don’t feel comfortable taking these steps or they’re not the best options for your situation, we’ve created a warning letter you can send. It’s a sensitively written letter that informs the adult that it is known they provided alcohol to minors and outlines the dangers associated with underage drinking. Visit our Parent Warning Letter webpage for more information on how to use this resource.

We’re Here To Help

At Parent Up, our mission is to equip parents with facts, resources and tools to prevent underage drinking in the Northland. To learn more about what you can do to prevent underage drinking, check out our collection of online tools and resources!

Laura Bruce
Laura Bruce
Program Director Specialist

Laura Bruce is the Program Development Specialist at Tri-County Mental Health Services, Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri.  She is a certified prevention specialist and enjoys the challenge of proactively working to reduce and prevent problems that affect everyone in our community.  In her current role, she works with multiple coalitions throughout the Kansas City Northland with the aim of reducing drug and alcohol use among youth. Using programs like Parent Up, we work to mobilize our community and parents to protect area youth from the harmful effects of underage drinking.

Alcohol and the Teen Brain

Sad Drunk Woman on Armchair with Empty Bottles

This month Elise Bennett, a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist in Kansas City, Missouri, writes about why teenagers are more vulnerable to alcohol, the impact alcohol has on the teen brain, and what you can do as a parent to prevent underage drinking.

Alcohol and the Teen Brain

The brain is not fully developed until at least the mid-twenties with the adolescent years being a crucial period in brain development. Because of this, teens are much more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol than adults.

Many of the teens that I work with in my practice are transparent about using alcohol as a coping strategy to manage their stress, depression, or anxiety. Since the alcohol often perpetuates the problem, a teen drinks more and more in a setting looking for the “benefits” they see marketed for alcohol in movies and the media.

Why Teens are More Vulnerable to Harmful Effects of Alcohol

The part of the brain undergoing the most growth during the adolescent years is the portion involved in impulse control, rule learning, and decision making. Developmentally, teens are in a stage where they don’t believe bad things will actually happen to them. Their ability to weigh risk versus reward is underdeveloped. This means decision making is often weighted more heavily toward the option that feels most fun in the moment without much consideration for the long-term impact.

Making healthy choices can even be seen in more benign examples of how teens weigh the importance of their schoolwork. When given the option of receiving five dollars for each day in a week they completed their homework or $50 on Friday if they complete their homework every day, an overwhelming number of teens chose to receive the instant gratification of having five dollars in their pocket. Similarly, teens that I work with describe the difficulty of choosing between the hope that consuming alcohol will be fun in the moment or delaying the instant gratification to maintain trust and respect from their parents.

Adolescent drinking beer - alcoholism among young adults
 Teens are in a stage of development where they don’t believe bad things will actually happen to them.

The Short and Long-term Consequences of Underage Drinking

A central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows down the brain and breathing, and heart rate and consciousness follow. In the short term, alcohol creates noticeable deficits in memory, impaired speech, impaired decision making, loss of muscle growth, deregulated sleep, and decreased ability to manage stress.

Because the teen brain is still building its architecture, alcohol and other drugs have the possibility of changing the trajectory of brain development. In the longer term, alcohol creates diminished gray matter in the brain, inability to think abstractly, memory loss, and loss of attention span.

While most cells in the body regenerate, cells damaged in the brain by alcohol are not replaced.

What Parents Can Do To Prevent Underage Drinking

Teens crave connection with their parents. I hear from parents regularly that they believe they are no longer relevant to their children once they hit adolescence. The reality, however, is that parents have the most influence over whether or not a teen chooses to drink underage. Over and over again, teen clients of mine verbalize the desire for their parents to ask them questions about their friends, their hobbies, and their identity.

Talking to your children, limiting access and refusing to give alcohol to your children are the most effective ways to impact an adolescent’s alcohol consumption.

Here are more ways you can minimize your teen’s risk of underage drinking:

  • Talk to other parents about not having alcohol at parties with your child.
  • Check in with your teenager before and after they go out.
  • Set clear expectations for behavior.
  • Practice good supervision and consistent discipline.
  • Minimize conflict in the family.
  • Eat dinner as a family as often as possible—this is a good time to talk about the issues your children face in a non-threatening way.

As a parent, you have the power to affect positive change in your children’s lives. Learn more about what you can do to prevent underage drinking!

 

Elise Bennett

Elise Bennett is a Clinically Licensed Therapist who works with adolescents, adults, and families. Elise works very closely with area school districts to collaborate treatment plans and mental health outcomes to benefit both her clients and the Northland adolescent community. Elise sits on the Executive Board for the Missouri Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the Greater Kansas City Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the Liberty Alliance for Youth. She has extensive lobbying, workshop and conference presentation experience including guest lecturing at area Universities and social service organizations.

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