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North Jersey mother Megan Evans* was jolted awake when her phone rang one Friday night during her 17-year-old son Eric’s senior year. It was Eric’s friend on the line; she said Eric was sick, and they were waiting downstairs. “I leapt out of bed, opened the front door, and saw my son leaning over the railing puking his guts out,” says Evans. She quickly assessed that Eric hadn’t suddenly been stricken by some mystery illness, he’d been drinking. Her husband took over, bringing Eric inside while Evans drove the friend home. Stunned to find out that “they’d been drinking vodka out of water bottles on school property during that night’s football game,” Evans was furious.

Evans’ experience is far from unique. Underage drinking, which often begins in adolescence, is a major problem in the United States, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What’s more, alcohol is used more than any other substance. In a 2019 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), almost 25 percent of 14 to 15-year-olds admitted to having had at least one alcoholic drink. And though statistically, America’s youth drink less than adults, almost 90 percent of the alcohol they do consume occurs via binge drinking (defined as more than four drinks for females and more than five drinks for males). Among those surveyed, about two percent of 12 to 13-year-olds reported drinking alcohol in the past month, with about one percent admitting to binge drinking. In 16 to 17-year-old respondents, about 20 percent said they drank, with almost 10 percent reporting binge drinking.

As a parent, how can you approach the subject of drinking with your child? Read on for expert suggestions:

SIGNS OF UNDERAGE DRINKING

When kids don’t want their parents to know something, they’re masters at covering their tracks. Sure, it’s possible we might find a bottle of alcohol tucked away in our child’s closet (or even smell it on their breath), but teenagers usually aren’t that obvious. So how do you know if your teen is drinking?

When it comes to signs of alcohol use, one size doesn’t fit all. According to SAMHSA, you may notice behavioral or mood changes such as anger, irritability or defensiveness. Their energy may decline, or they may become uninterested in things they used to enjoy. Grades may begin to slip, they may start missing classes, or they might begin to receive disciplinary action at school. Other signs include memory and concentration issues, changes to their sleep routine or bloodshot eyes.

“If you notice any shift in your teen’s normal behavior (either at home, academically or socially) it’s important to talk to find out what’s going on,” says Jennifer Remsen, MSW, LSW, a program coordinator of adolescent services at Montclair’s COPE Center at Oaks Integrated Care.

Maybe you feel like your kid is going to drink anyway, so you’d rather they do it at home. But in New Jersey, allowing your child and their underage friends to have even one alcoholic beverage has major legal consequences. Parents who provide alcohol to minors can face a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail, not to mention a criminal record. Under NJ law, “anyone who purposely or knowingly offers or serves or makes available an alcoholic beverage to a person under the legal age for consuming alcoholic beverages or entices or encourages that person to drink an alcoholic beverage is a disorderly person.” Even if you’re not physically in your home (or if you’re sleeping) when underage drinking occurs, you can be held legally accountable, so don’t allow it under any circumstances.

START THE CONVERSATION EARLY

“Establish a good rapport with your kids early on and communicate openly with them about the seriousness of alcohol use—they’re more likely to be involved in crashes, have issues with school and with their friends, be a victim of a crime and there’s a potential for addiction,” says Remsen. “Don’t make it so unapproachable that they don’t talk to you about it, and they just experiment with their friends behind your back.”

Want your kids to learn good habits? Start by being a strong role model and exhibiting healthy behavior around alcohol consumption. “Behavior is learned, and kids are going to emulate what they see in the household,” says George Smith, a program supervisor at COPE Center. “If the parents are getting knocked out drunk every night, that’s obviously not good. Kids are going to think it’s okay and that it’s normal.”

It’s vital to help your kids develop healthy coping strategies to deal with life’s stressors. “When people don’t have the skills to manage stress in a constructive way, they might look to substances to find that temporary relief, sometimes progressing into full-blown addiction,” says Remsen. “A lot of times when addiction occurs, it’s because people are using [alcohol] as a coping mechanism, so being able to give our kids the skills to cope with the stresses of life in a healthy way and making home a safe place to talk about those things is important.”

WHAT TO DO IF THEY’RE ALREADY DRINKING

With kids, there will be some level of experimentation, so address it in a way that’s relatable and understandable but that also communicates the potential dangers, says Remsen. It’s important to find a balance between letting your kids feel safe enough to come to you if they’ve been drinking and holding them accountable.

“If there’s a culture in your family where [drinking] is a horrible offense with severe consequences, then they might not feel that they can come to you, and something even worse can happen. However, kids need structure and boundaries. Address the behavior and hold them accountable, because the world will create boundaries if you as a parent don’t,” Remsen says.

Before doling out a harsh punishment, explore with them why they drank. “Were they experimenting? Was it peer pressure? Are they dealing with a mental health issue like anxiety or depression and self-medicating? If they come home and self-disclose, ‘Hey mom, I was at a party and this is what happened,’ then have a healthy discussion about it,” Smith says.

Evans is glad her son’s drinking incident happened when he was still in high school instead of after he’d left for college. “We had a serious conversation about his plans, which were to apply to Ivy League schools,” she says. “Behavior reports are available to guidance counselors and schools, so it was extremely unwise to be drinking on school property—he could have just thrown his chances of being away. He got very lucky that there weren’t any consequences besides being grounded.”

WHEN DRINKING BECOMES A PROBLEM

If drinking becomes a recurrent pattern, say, it’s the third party your child had to call you from for a ride home after they’d been drinking, Smith says it’s time to go deeper. “Ask your child, ‘Do you need treatment? Do you need to talk to someone?’ Are these signs of addiction, or is something else wrong? We don’t want to associate a pattern of drinking with a punishment, we want to associate it with some type of help.”

When underage drinking becomes habitual, try to get a sense of the core issues underlying the addiction. “A lot of times, especially with kids, alcohol use is masking something else,” says Smith. “Maybe there’s addiction somewhere else in the family, maybe there’s a reason the kid is drinking (like mom and dad are fighting), or maybe there’s something else going on in the household.”

No matter what, never place blame on yourself or your child. “Sometimes parents don’t understand that addiction is not just a choice of ‘just say no.’ It’s not that simple,” Smith says. “Recognize that addiction is a family disease, and the entire family should be involved in treatment. Get the family involved so everyone can communicate with each other and really work as a whole.”

If your teen has a drinking problem, connect with these resources:

Above the Influence

Al-Anon Family Groups

COPE Center-Oaks Integrated Care

NJ Connect: (855) 652-3737

NJ Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services 

Perform Care NJ

ReachNJ

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

NJ Addictions Access Center: (844) 276-2777

—Heidi L. Borst is a mother, writer and lifestyle coach based in Wilmington, NC.

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