The CDC offers a startling perspective on alcohol use by minors, reporting that “people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States.” It is a sad, unfortunate, and preventable fact that a significant portion of these individuals is furnished or served alcohol by an adult who is responsible for their care.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in 2013 “parents, guardians, or other adult family members provided the last alcohol to 24.5 percent of nonpaying underage drinkers.”
Furnishing Alcohol To Minors Is Not Without Risk
An adult may make this decision for several reasons. First, the parents suffer from alcohol abuse themselves and either not see drinking as a problem, or be so overwhelmed by their own abuse or addiction that they’re unable to make sound or rational decisions.
Secondly, some parents have gotten themselves in the predicament of striving to be their child’s friend in a capacity that overshadows their role of being a parent. Providing your underage child and/or their friends with alcohol is one instance where this line between friend and the role of a caretaker and parent has blurred.
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Lastly, there are certain schools of thought that lend to the idea that giving child alcohol within a supervised environment is either a means to teach responsible drinking or to monitor what is considered to be inevitable social drinking.
Whatever the reason—this is a dangerous and slippery slope. Despite the fact that these people may think that providing their child with alcohol isn’t a big deal, a wealth of current research suggests that this is not the case. It shows that in fact those children who receive alcohol from their parents statistically have a higher rate of problems with drinking during these years and down the road.
Providing an underaged person with alcohol can be harmful and even deadly, with results that extend past the night in question and create what can be serious and lasting effects that can undermine your child’s current and future health and wellbeing. In addition to this, it can jeopardize you, the parent, by placing you in a situation that could potentially lead to serious legal troubles for both you and your child. You may be providing what you think is fun, stability, or protection now, while in fact, you are providing a greater risk for emotional, mental, vocational, educational, or physical turmoil down the road.
Supplying Minors With Alcohol Puts Parents At Risk
It is an unfortunate misconception that some parents think they cannot get in trouble for furnishing alcohol to their minor child. This is far from the truth. In addition to the devastating fact that you may have to contend with a potentially painful situation for your child—such as an illness, sexual assault, loss of job, or dropping out of school—that requires your mental, emotional, and even financial support, in worst cases you could suffer the loss of life of your child or the guilt of the death of another as a result of consuming alcohol you furnished.
By serving alcohol to minors, you are directly putting yourself in a position of danger for legal repercussions. These include, but are not limited to:
- Potential fines
- Possible arrest or citation
- Jail time
- Incurred monetary costs for any legal fees or to cover the services of the police
- Community service
- Civil lawsuits
If you served or provided alcohol for a child other than your own, their parents may sue you. Additionally, if your child or someone you served or provided for caused bodily harm or death to another person by either act of violence, assault, or operating a vehicle while impaired or intoxicated, the individual or the family of the individual may sue you.
Laws are different state to state pertaining to providing alcohol to minors. The Wall Street Journal reports that “31 states allow parents, guardians or spouses to furnish alcohol to minors. In seven of the 31 states, that’s permissible only in a private residence.” Despite the fact that it may be legal, this does not in any capacity mean that the action is not without far-reaching negative or harmful effects for the child. It is very important that you thoroughly consider the harm and damage that your action may bring upon yourself, your family, and your child before you commit yourself to this path.
Resources For Parents
A relatively new resource for parents, which is hosted through Drugfree.org, is “Underage Drinking In The Home”; this can be accessed at socialhost.drugfree.org. It allows you to select any state within the United States to access that state’s specific social hosting laws as well as explanations regarding any legal actions or penalties that may result.
The site states that “for the purposes of this tool, social hosting was interpreted as broadly as possible as follows: when an individual over the legal age (18 or 21) serves, furnishes, or permits the possession or consumption of alcohol to a person underage (generally 20 years or younger) on property for which s/he has responsibility.” This site also provides parents or legal guardians with education on the scientific, social, and legal ramifications of social hosting and underage drinking in the home.
How Does Underage Drinking Put A Minor At Risk?
Even if you are supplying your child with alcohol in the controlled setting of your home, chances are that they are also drinking outside the bounds of this environment. Both settings carry significant risks that we outline here:
- Academic Problems: Drinking affects the regions of the brain that are responsible for learning, memory, and certain intellectual development. Drinking can result in hangovers which can hijack a person’s day to the point that they might miss school or struggle through their class sessions and homework, leading to a lower quality of retention and productivity. In addition, drinking can affect a person’s sleep cycles and sleep quality, which can lead to decreased retention, concentration, and focus.
- Alcohol Poisoning: At this age, individuals are more likely to binge drink and generally have a lower tolerance than adults do. Paired with the pressures from their peers and various drinking games, alcohol poisoning is a dangerous risk that could put someone in the emergency room or even result in death.
- Alcohol Use or Dependence: Studies show that teenagers who drink have an increased risk of alcohol-related problems later in life, the greatest of these being alcohol use or dependence. The CDC cites that “youth who start drinking before age 15 years are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21 years.”
- Binge Drinking: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) published the following frightening statistics on consuming more than 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking” and that “5.3 million young people had 5 or more drinks on the same occasion, within a few hours, at least once in the past month.”
Being that it is not legally feasible for scientists to give alcohol to minors for the purpose of a scientific experiment, they instead perform certain experiments on animals. A study published in Preventative Medicine reported that “they also demonstrate that binge pattern exposure to alcohol during adolescence increases future susceptibility to the memory-impairing effects of alcohol.” The study’s authors continued to speak of the risks associated with this mode of drinking, stating that “heavy episodic or binge drinking impairs study habits and erodes the development of transitional skills to adulthood.”
- Damage to the Brain: Individuals of this age are still developing. In fact, it has been shown that our brains continue to develop into our early twenties. Certain key areas of our brain that are still in the process of development at are a greater risk of injury or impairment from underage drinking.
The Wall Street Journal reported on a study conducted by the University of California-San Diego, stating that “brain scans have shown that heavy drinking—20 drinks or more a month—in adolescents can create changes in the frontal cortex, the hippocampus and white matter, leading to decreased cognitive function, executive function, memory, attention and spatial skills.”
The Preventative Medicine study witnessed an approximate reduction of 10 percent in the volume of the hippocampus region of the brain when comparing MRIs of individuals aged 13-21 with adolescent-onset alcohol use disorder to those that did not drink. The study also found that underage drinkers “are at elevated risk of neurodegeneration (particularly in regions of the brain responsible for learning and memory), impairments in functional brain activity, and the appearance of neurocognitive deficits.”
Drinking encourages risky and dangerous behaviors that may result in accidents or injury that can further traumatize the brain. Upon examining other studies, the study postulated that alcohol use “may play a role in more than 50 percent of traumatic brain injuries in adolescents.”
- Death: NIAAA reports that “4,358 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning.” In addition to this, consuming alcohol puts them at greater risk for endangering the lives of others by engaging in behaviors such as drunk driving.
- Impaired Judgement: Individuals in this age category are far more likely while under the influence to entertain ideas and behaviors that may result in injury, death, or legal repercussions. These include violent or criminal acts, impaired driving, and dangerous sexual activities such as unprotected sex. Preventative Medicine reported on this, noting that “they are also more prone to drink heavily and rapidly until intoxicated because their social, emotional control, thinking, and decision-making skills are less developed. Moreover, they are more likely than adults to lose control and are more prone to risk-taking.”
- Legal Trouble: A youth may encounter many of the same legal troubles that we outlined for an adult. Amassing a legal history can be detrimental to student aid or scholarships and provide other troubles in vocational or academic pursuits.
- Physical or Sexual Assault: Statistically it’s been proven that individuals within this age demographic are more vulnerable to assault and more likely to perpetrate such events while drinking. One reason for the former is that youth are far more likely than adults to experience periods of “blackout” while they drink.
- Other Drug Use: In some cases, due to the already present peer pressure and atmosphere, decreased judgment and inhibitions, and a desire to fit in, a young person that is drinking will be more prone to engage themselves in other drug use while under the influence of alcohol. SAMHSA reports on this, stating that “in 2013, underage current drinkers were more likely than current alcohol users aged 21 or older to use illicit drugs within 2 hours of alcohol use on their last reported drinking occasion (19.9 vs. 5.7 percent).” The most common of drugs was reported to be marijuana.
- Suicide: Alcohol use is a risk factor in teen suicide. One reason for this is that it can increase the instance of depression. Preventative Medicine again referenced other research, saying “that between 1.2% and 1.5% of student drinkers indicated that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use.”
How To Tell If Your Child Has An Alcohol Abuse Problem
It is vastly important that if you have any doubt that your child is engaging in alcohol use or abuse that you do not ignore the problem. Studies show that parents who are active in their child’s life and open and communicative about the reality and hazards of underage drinking may actually reduce their child’s use. This is because these talks hold them more accountable by illustrating the parent’s concern and support, while also emphasizing the dangers and risks of drinking.
In 2013, Drugfree.org illuminated the prevalence of underage drinking by citing that “more than a quarter of teens (26 percent) said they had consumed alcohol within the past month, while more than one in seven (15 percent) reported being drunk in the past month.”
NIAAA offers the following signs as warnings of potential use or abuse:
- Changes in mood, including anger and irritability
- Academic and/or behavioral problems in school
- Changing groups of friends
- Low energy level
- Less interest in activities and/or care in appearance
- Finding alcohol among a young person’s things
- Smelling alcohol on a young person’s breath
- Problems concentrating and/or remembering
- Slurred speech
- Coordination problems
If you see any of these, please do not be ashamed or fearful to reach out, even if you’ve had a part in contributing to your child’s drinking. Looking the other way and missing an opportunity to intervene or educate your child while helping them to stop drinking is not worth the risks.