It’s Saturday night, and kids all over North America are hanging out at their friends’ houses, watching movies, going to parties. And children as young as 11 are taking their first drink of alcohol—the average age when boys start drinking. For girls, that age is now 13. More and more kids are drinking hard liquor, and an alarming number of those teens and pre-teens are binge drinking, which is defined as consuming 5 or more drinks of any alcohol in one setting for boys, and 4 or more drinks for girls.
“When I ask them if they drink to get drunk, they say, ‘Duh, that’s why we do it,’” says Dick Schaefer, an addiction counselor who has worked with chemically dependent teens for nearly thirty years. He is also the author of Choices and Consequences: What to Do When a Teenager Uses Alcohol/Drugs. “Getting drunk is the thing to do, and they associate it with fun.” Traditionally, in the upcoming season of graduation, prom and other kid rites of passage, the amount of alcohol young people drink soars. What’s important, says Schaefer, is to keep the lines of communication open before an incident occurs—and know how to deal with your child if you do catch them drinking.
The fact is, kids are hitting the bottle in greater numbers these days, enough to cause the Surgeon General to issue a report last year warning parents about alcohol consumption among minors. According to the study, there are 11 million underage drinkers in the U.S., and 7.2 million of those teens and pre-teens are binge drinking.
The reasons for the surge among teens and pre-teens in recent years are many: Kids are gravitating towards the newer, flavored hard liquors the alcohol industry is producing. And “They’re not sipping—they’re gulping it down like soda,” says Schaefer. “The kids I see tell me they drink every weekend, at least four times a month. And they get drunk each time.” He considers alcohol to be the number one risk for teens and pre-teens when it comes to substance abuse. The Surgeon General calls it “The drug of choice for teens in America.”
Besides highway accidents and the increasing number of tragic fatalities caused by kids drinking to toxic levels, the dangers alcohol poses are many: recent studies have shown that binge drinking can lead to brain damage, obesity, memory loss, and impairment of other brain functions.
The statistics are staggering: children who get drunk for the first time under the age of 15 are five times more likely to have alcohol-related problems later on in life. And if alcoholism is in your family, your child is four times more likely to become an alcoholic. It’s been estimated that more than three million teenagers are alcoholics in this country, and millions more are classified as having a serious drinking problem.
In the last five years, some troubling new trends have emerged: There have been an increasing number of younger kids who are referred to the court as first time users—or kids who have been caught in the act of underage drinking. “Now we’re getting 12 and 13 year olds referred into the court system. And I’ve seen kids who are 12 going to the ER as a result of over-drinking,” says Schaefer. In addition, more girls are being referred to the courts than ever before.
As the director of the Touch Love Addiction Treatment Center in Fargo, North Dakota, Schaefer also works with the court system in his area to help kids who have been arrested for consuming alcohol. Frequently, treatment involves minors attending classes with their parents. He classifies their drinking at the following levels:
Misuse: Any time a minor drinks. (Except for religious purposes or meals at home with parental approval.)
Abuse: Any time a minor gets drunk or stoned, any time they have drugs on them, engage in binge drinking or have paraphernalia, and any time they get behind the wheel while intoxicated. As a parent, if you walk into your kid’s room and find a bottle of alcohol, marijuana or paraphernalia, you should consider them to be at the abuse level. “Kids at the misuse level won’t bring it home, because they can take it or leave it and they don’t want to get in trouble,” says Schaefer. “At the abuse level, they need the chemical high, so they’ll take the chance. Once you equate having fun with getting high, that’s abuse.”
Potential dependency: The primary relationship for addicts is the relationship with alcohol or drugs. This is when the relationship with the substance becomes more important than any other relationship. This is when a child will choose the chemical high over time with family or friends. “Alcoholics and drug addicts are very lonely people,” says Schaefer. “You can’t get close to someone while they’re high. I tell the kids in my classes, ‘You’re lonely, and you’re going to be lonely until you get straight.’”
In his work as an addiction counselor, Schaefer developed a system of contracts parents can give their children in order to keep them alcohol and drug-free. Each new contract is adopted if the prior one has been broken.
The Rules: What can parents do to set consequences in the home? Start out with rules. “The rule in our house is no chemical use. Your curfew is 12:00 midnight on the weekends.” This is a verbal agreement with your child. List the logical consequences for breaking the rules. “We caught you drinking. You will have to forfeit the car keys for 1 month.” Negotiate with your teen and agree to the consequences ahead of time. This takes the heat out of the moment.
The Simple Contract: This is a rule written down with specific consequences, to be implemented if the verbal agreement is broken. The Simple Contract should be written down and signed at the misuse level. At the very least, your child should agree to three things: no chemical use, no violence, and a curfew. Tell your teen that if they violate this contract, they will be sent to a chemical dependence evaluation.
The Turf Contract: If the Simple Contract is broken, the next type of contract you can implement is the Turf Contract. This is a written agreement that includes all the points of the Simple Contract and outlines the behavior required for the teen to earn privileges at home, like use of the car or cell phone. In addition to stopping any alcohol or drug use, the behavior might include school attendance and performance, keeping a curfew, or doing chores at home. The consequence you can give for breaking this contract is the choice of chemical dependence treatment in either an in-patient or out-patient setting. Schaefer advises, “Always give your child a choice—never put a kid in a corner without a way out.”
The Bottom-Line Contract: This is to be implemented if the Turf Contract is violated. The Bottom-Line Contract is a written agreement that outlines specific behaviors required for your child to retain the privileges of living at home or staying in school. It includes all the elements of the Simple and Turf Contracts. Consequences for breaking this contract by doing drugs or alcohol: Give the child the choice of two reputable and available inpatient treatment centers. “You’re saying, ‘You’re out of control, and we’re going to agree to get you help,'” Schaefer explains.
If you suspect your child might be drinking or taking drugs, talk to your child’s school. Substance abuse almost always shows up in attendance, GPA, and truancy. “If kids are getting drunk, they’re not doing their work,” says Schaefer. What happens in school is not confidential, and teachers are required to record observable behaviors of their students. Schools have checklists for teachers that parents can ask to see. (One of these is called the “Student Assisted Programs Checklist,” but names may vary from state to state.) The list includes questions about truancy, the students’ attitudes and behaviors, and also alcohol and drug-related questions. “As a parent, you have the right to know what is being recorded about your child,” says Schaefer. While parents do not have a right to hear what kids tell school counselors or psychologists—except in the case of suicidal or homicidal behaviors or vandalism—parents do have a right to see any checklist the school has on their child.
You need to have some communication with your child about drinking and substance abuse. “It should be just as easy to talk to them about drinking and marijuana as it is to talk about sex…and that’s the problem,” says Schaefer. “We think we’re so open but we’re not. Talk about the drinking scene, talk to your kids about your concerns. Keep the lines of communication open.”
The good news is that not all kids are drinking. About 60 percent of kids in the U.S. and Canada drink, but 40 percent do not. Arm yourself with that information before you talk to your child, who might be under the impression that all his friends are doing it. “That’s the important message that I try to get across,” says Schaefer. “In my classes I say, ‘You guys are among the 60 percent, you broke the law.’ And that’s good to tell kids. We’ve got to break this idea that ‘everybody drinks’ because it’s just not true.”
At his court-mandated classes for kids who have been caught drinking, Dick Schaefer gives out this list of questions to parents who attend with their children. “I tell the kids, ‘Parents are given this list of questions at the hospital when you’re born. They have the right to ask you these questions—and get the answers from you—until you’re 18.”
5 Things Every Parent Has the Right to Know:
Where are you going?
What are you doing?
Who will you be hanging out with?
How will you get home?
What time will you be home?
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.