A dozen parents sat down recently to talk about underage drinking. "Up until they are 12 or 13," one of the moms said without intended humor, "they do what you say. Then they stop."
In fact, research shows that most young children view drinking alcohol as wrong. That does change as they grow older, when one-third of Oregon eighth-grade girls say they have consumed alcohol in the past month and one in 10 of both girls and boys say they have engaged in binge drinking during the prior 30 days.
Is your teen one of them?
"None of us think so," said another mom, "but we're all worried."
Perhaps they should be: A national survey found that one in five teens said they had had five or more drinks in the prior two weeks, a rate 20 times higher than what a group of parents estimated in another survey.
The son of one of the Oregon parents surprised his folks: "We were gone on a weekend and he threw a party at our house."
That not only exposed the parents to potential civil or criminal liability if someone had been injured, but most parents also are unaware that state law permits police to seize not only the liquor from an underage party but also related property such as furniture, stereos and glassware if the party was held with the parents' knowledge.
One parent said she regularly shows her daughter news stories about teens hurt or killed in alcohol-related auto crashes. "This could be you, it could be your friends, it does happen," she tells her 13-year-old.
She's right: The national rate of alcohol-related fatalities among 16- to 20-year-olds is almost double that for drivers 21 and older.
And that is only one of the risks. "The earlier you start," one mom tells her kids, "the more likely you'll have a problem. So I'd really like you to wait."
She could add that teens who drink at age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent than those who wait until they're 21. The odds of alcohol dependence are also higher among children of alcoholics.
Teens should know that binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting, can lead to alcohol poisoning that kills. Or that alcohol's influence can lead to date rape, sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted teen pregnancies.
The teen years are a time of brain development. Sophisticated imaging techniques have detected structural brain differences in 17-year-olds who displayed alcohol-induced intellectual and behavioral impairments. Studies of laboratory animals, meanwhile, show that alcohol consumption during puberty affects maturation of the reproductive system.
The parents who sat down together all agreed: Parenting is a tough job.
The job requires not only careful listening, setting clear expectations, enforcing consequences and identifying attractive alternatives to alcohol, but also modeling responsible behavior. What kind of example do your drinking habits set for your child or teen?
As one mom put it near the end of their conversation, "I feel like I really don't know what I think I know." If you're also unsure where your child or teen is with drinking, it's in your best interests — and those of your teen — to find out.
For more information, visit www.oregon.gov/DHS/addiction/underage-drinking/main.shtml#resources.
Karen Wheeler is addictions policy manager in the Oregon Department of Human Services.