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The truth about teens and alcohol: Parents, researchers and students weigh in on drinking

No parent wants to imagine their teenager blackout drunk, and every family has a different strategy on how to avoid it. Peer pressure is different than it used to be, Erin Anderssen finds, and honesty is an admirable but tricky policy

Illustration by Dushan Milic for The Globe and Mail

An Ottawa mother recalls the night her daughter came home from a party with a friend's jacket, covered in vomit, and asked her to wash it, securing a promise that she'd keep it secret. A father describes using the "find my phone" app on his son's cell to track him down in a park, where he was chugging vodka with a friend, and drag him home. A mom in Alberta, remembering her own wild days of drinking as a teenager, has chosen, with her husband, to let her daughter and her friends drink in their backyard, where they can keep an eye on them. In Vancouver, a mother and father make clear to their teenagers that drinking is not okay, hoping they will hear those words as a deterrent when it comes to deciding how many drinks to chug at the next party.

Mix alcohol and adolescence, and parents have a complicated cocktail. The research is pretty conclusive: Kids tend to drink less when their parents fall on the stricter side of the no-drinking rule. But many worry – and teens themselves suggest – that this can backfire, leading to rebellious binging. Maybe you feel that they're going to drink anyway, so the safest place to do that is at home. Definitely, you want your kids to trust you enough to call if they are in trouble. What's the best way to ensure that happens? The Globe and Mail reviewed the research, listened to the experience of parents across the country and interviewed more than a dozen high-school students. This is how, they said, the parental messages about drinking filter down into the real life of the Canadian teenager. The good news: According to these high-school students, your teenager is listening more than you might think.

What the stats say: Teens today drink less than their parents in high school

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The percentage of teenagers who drink (and smoke pot, for that matter) has been steadily falling over the past decade – a trend not just in Canada, but also in the United States, Britain and Australia.

According to an ongoing, large-scale Ontario survey conducted by the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2015, only 39 per cent of high-school students reported drinking in the previous year. (Compare that with 66 per cent in 1985, when many of their parents would have been teenagers.) The rate of drinking, unsurprisingly, goes up as students age. But even by the final year of high school, only half of Grade 12s reported drinking in the past month.

Dr. Esme Fuller-Thomson, a University of Toronto researcher who studies binge drinking, points out the significance of those statistics. "Kids will say, 'Everyone but me is drinking,' and everyone is not," she says, advising parents against believing that "drinking is a given, and we just have to go along with it to keep them safe."

What is worrisome, however, is that, among those kids who do consume alcohol, the rate of high-risk drinking remains high. High-school students today still binge less often than teenagers in the 1980s, but nearly 30 per cent of Grade 12 kids report at least one time in the last year when they drank so much they "could not remember what happened," and 13 per cent reported that they had injured themselves or someone else while drinking. When it comes to binge drinking, girls have caught up to boys. Rural kids still drink more than their urban peers. And, among the students who were drinking, nearly half said they got their alcohol from a family member.

What the research says: It's probably not a good idea to give alcohol to your teen, or let them drink at home

In 2007, a major study out of Sweden debunked the belief that allowing young teens early but controlled exposure to alcohol at the family table reduced their likelihood to binge drink. Multiple international studies suggest that the kids who drink the least, and wait the longest, are the ones whose parents make it clear they don't approve, stress the risks of drinking, don't supply alcohol or allow drinking at home.

Those are big-picture numbers: Whether an individual teen drinks is influenced by factors such as how much parents drink themselves, personality and peer group. Still, the evidence is strong that the best advice a parent can give to their teen is to wait until they are older – for one thing, it's better for their developing brains. Research shows that regular drinking also sets the stage for pot smoking and other drugs.

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Illustration by Dushan Milic for The Globe and Mail

One parent's view: Let your teen drink at home

For Priscilla, the Alberta mom, her own teenage years determined how she'd handle her daughter's drinking. "When I was a teenager, I got into pretty much every drug and, also, alcohol beginning at a very young age," she wrote in an e-mail. She and her friends would sneak booze and drink in the park, choosing the person who had consumed the least to drive everyone home. As for her parents, "It wasn't hard to pull the wool over their eyes."

When her turn came, she decided to let her daughter drink, including providing alcohol to her friends once in a while when they gather around a bonfire in their backyard. Sometimes, she and her husband watch from the house, and sometimes, they join them at the fire. "If you teach them how to drink," she surmises, "they're not going to slingshot into the bar scene and turn into raging alcoholics."

For the most part, she says, nobody drinks excessively. "If there is a kid who had a tendency toward that, I would stop the bus," Priscilla says. "If my daughter showed signs that she wanted to drink every weekend, we would definitely have a talk."

Fuller-Thomson, from U of T, takes a much harder line, arguing that parents who allow other kids to drink in their house aren't only liable for what happens, they are also breaking the trust of other parents if they don't talk to them first.

The teen perspective: Zero-tolerance works … until it doesn't

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Teens suggest that too-strict parents often get the result they don't want: Their kids rebel and drink even more. The majority of teenagers interviewed for this story, especially those in the higher grades, said that while their parents' views might curb how much they drink, laying down the law wouldn't change their decision to drink or not.

"Teaching abstinence often leads to dangerous sex. Teaching constant sobriety can lead to unsafe drinking," one Grade 11 student from northern Canada said. Like many students, she made the case for parents letting their kids drink at home. "Honestly, most teenagers are going to drink whether or not their parents let them."

A Grade 11 student in Toronto explained, "There are those people who get tired of being so regulated. Those people often go the craziest."

Illustration by Dushan Milic for The Globe and Mail

One parent's view: Drinking is not okay, but call me, always

"Once your kid is out of your sight," observed a mother in Vancouver who I'll call Jill, "they can do whatever they want." (Like the other parents in this story, she asked not to be named so as not to tell tales on her teens.) In their house, Jill and her husband allowed their kids to have sips of wine or beer. "They didn't get their own glass, but if they were curious, they could sip from ours – it's not forbidden, it's not taboo."

But when it came to drinking at parties, the message was clear to their two teenagers (and also, in early preparation, to their 10-year-old): The parents consistently remind them that they want the kids to wait until they are older, and why. When the time comes, their advice is specific: "You want to be in a safe environment; you don't want anyone to take your picture."

It's an informed request, rather than a command. "I don't pretend my kids are doing everything I say," Jill says. "But we tell them, 'This is what we think is the best.' "

So far, Jill says, so good. Her 15-year-old daughter came home recently from her first high-school party where alcohol was readily available. She didn't drink – but instead spent the evening cleaning up after her vomiting classmates, a first-hand lesson on the consequences of getting drunk. "She thought it was the worst night," says Jill.

The teen perspective: It's okay not to drink

Most of the teenagers insisted that the peer pressure to drink has largely evaporated. "There is always the guy who says, 'I want to be the first person to get you messed up,' one Grade 11 male student in Toronto admitted.

But Danielle, a 16-year-old in Nova Scotia, expressed a common viewpoint: "I feel it was cooler back then [when her parents were teenagers] if you went to parties and drank a lot, but nobody really cares about that any more."

And another Toronto teen explained that, aside from a couple of "special occasions," he has abided by his parent's no-alcohol-till-19 rule. At parties, where most of his friends are drinking, he says, "I am not an outcast, and I don't feel left out."

Students, incidentally, offered their own reasons for not drinking heavily. One boy said he'd heard alcohol could stunt his growth. Some were athletes, or busy with jobs, or willing to be designated drivers. Another cited religious reasons. "I am an ambitious person," says Allie, a Grade 12 student in British Columbia. "Our brains are growing, and you don't want to ruin that."

One parent's view: Keeping confidences is a tough call

Having an open relationship with your child means you might be asked to keep secrets – like the Ottawa mom, Ellen, quietly washing the jacket so her daughter's friend didn't "get in trouble."

"There should be a code of respect from one mom to another. We are supposed to be on the same page, watching out for our kids," she says. "I really feel I am walking a fine line. It's really important to me that my kids can trust me, and talk about any issues."

She'd like to talk more openly, she says, but the parents in her circle don't really swap stories. For one thing, nobody wants to rat out their kids and break their trust. "If my mom had known as much about what I was really up to as I know about my kids, she would have had a heart attack," Ellen observes. "But I'd rather know than not know."

The teen perspective: It's better when parents know – just maybe not everything

"If anything happens," explains Jessica, a Grade 12 student in British Columbia, "I won't hesitate to call my parents, because they know that I have been drinking. I can call them and not get into trouble." Her parents, she says, have also hosted parties, collecting the keys in a bowl so no one would drive home after drinking. During one larger party, she says, her father sat at the gate in a lawn chair, scrutinizing every departing driver.

Jessica compares the openness in her family to that of a girlfriend who would sneak out of the house at night to get around her parents' rules, or take rides home from "questionable" people because she was afraid to call her mother. With her parents as guides, and not judges, Jessica – along with several of the other teenagers interviewed – claimed she has learned to handle alcohol more responsibly. She doesn't need to drink to rebel. (On the other hand, when parents took a harder line on marijuana, the teens who smoked weed admitted they were keeping that a secret from mom and dad.)

Allie, the B.C. teen, drinks occasionally – something, she says, her parents don't necessarily "appreciate." But "they know I am going to do it," especially now that she's in her senior year. To set limits (and avoid any mystery drinks), she says they will send her to a party with a couple of coolers and tell her, "This is what you are allowed, and we want to know when you get there." Her mom doesn't sleep until she gets home. "They respect my view on how I want to party. They just want me to be safe."

And what happens to those kids who don't drink during high school, once they head off to university? Despite concerns that teenaged sobriety might prompt a dangerous spiral of reckless, inexperienced binging once on campus, surveys suggest that's often not the case: Alcohol habits learned early tend to stick.

Andy, a first-year university student from Toronto, offers this account of his own fall off the wagon. In high school, he says, he respected his mother's wishes that he not drink, mainly for religious reasons. But during frosh week this September, he decided to crack the beer can open.

"I just wanted to have that experience," he says. He spent much of that first night, he says, inexplicably obsessed with picking garbage off the ground and searching for a recycling bin. "Now, I am back to rarely drinking," he says. "I don't have that burning curiosity." (Or, he admits, the money.) Still, looking back on high school, he says, "I absolutely feel like I didn't miss out. I am happy with my past self." As for his mom, he's not sharing his recent experiment with her – yet. "Maybe 20 years from now," he jokes. "When I have my own house."


Percentage of students who drank in the past year, by grade. The percentage has fallen since the 1980s, when their own parents were teens – especially in the early grades. Source: CAMH 2015 OSDUHS Detailed Drug Use Report

Percentage of students who drank in the past year, by grade. The percentage has fallen since the 1980s, when their own parents were teens – especially in the early grades. Source: CAMH 2015 OSDUHS Detailed Drug Use Report

Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail

How often students in Grade 7, 9 and 11, reported drinking in the past year. Source: CAMH 2015 OSDUHS Detailed Drug Use Report

TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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