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There are a lot of reasons why teenage drinking isn't a good idea, beginning with an increase in all sorts of risky behaviours

ANTHONY E. WOLF

Many parents today are ambivalent about their teen and drinking.

"They're probably going to drink some day anyway. Besides, adolescence is supposed to be a time for fun. How bad is it if they drink? There's a lot worse stuff than drinking. And what control do I have? I can't keep them locked up in their rooms all through high school. And maybe if they do drink, if somehow it's supervised, they'll be more responsible, their behaviour will be less risky."

These are the kinds of arguments that fuel many parents' uncertainty. Add to that the fact that parents today try to be more reasonable - which is good, but makes it harder for them to take a stand where issues are complex.

It doesn't help that teenagers echo many of those issues: "What is the problem? I drink because it's fun. I drink because all of my friends do. I drink because it's totally boring around here, so what else do you expect me to do? Who does it hurt? Nobody. I know drinking and driving is bad, but I don't personally know anybody who actually died that way."

Should teenagers drink?

"Dad, is it okay if I go over to Richie's tonight? He's having some kids come over and we're going to get totally hammered. It'll just be beer and Jack Daniels. Okay?"

I'm not a fan of teens and drinking.

Yes, many will drink later on. But what's the hurry? Let me list a few arguments why I believe teenage drinking is not a good idea.

A fact that you can't get around: Drinking as a teenager significantly increases the risk of being involved in a fatal car accident.

Alcohol consumed in large quantities can be toxic to the point of death. Alcohol consumed in combination with other drugs can be more toxic than alcohol alone. (This is particularly troubling given that some teenagers experiment with prescription drugs to get high.)

Teens who drink are far more vulnerable to incidents that could damage their future. Getting seriously hurt. Seriously hurting someone else. Trouble with the law. Irresponsible sexual behaviour - unprotected sex resulting in greater risk of STDs or pregnancy. Non-consensual sex - as perpetrator or victim.

Fun becomes defined as drinking. They are less likely to have non-drinking fun, or even know that there is such a thing. Hence, they become dependent on drinking in order to have a good time.

Teens say one big reason they drink is stress relief - not a good pattern to set early in life as it gets in the way of the development of other non-drinking stress-coping skills. You learn to drink rather than cope.

Last, alcohol has a power of its own. Teenagers, like adults, vastly underestimate that power. They all think they can handle it.

Yes, it is true that you have only limited control over whether your child drinks or not. But there is something that you can do that can produce in your child a more reasoned and responsible approach - whether or not they are a drinker or will become one.

Talk with them.

Talk about what you genuinely think about them and alcohol. I offer the above thoughts as a place to start. Have the conversation often. Be as honest as you can. With anything you say, ask what they think. And listen.

"Sara, I want to talk to you about drinking."

"Must we?"

Then plunge right in.

"I worry that if you drink you might do stuff that you will later regret. Especially with guys."

"Mother!"

"Well, it is more likely to happen with drinking."

What does this do? If nothing else, it puts these words in your kid's head. When drinking comes up in her life, maybe, just maybe, some of those words will still be there. Maybe those words will influence what your child decides to do. But the words can't be there in their heads, of course, unless you say them.

Drinking is part of the world they live in. They may well end up drinking. But wouldn't you rather that they enter into that world - or not - having certain facts in their head that may yield a more considered approach to drinking? Wouldn't you rather that they approach the world of drinking with a little more thoughtfulness?

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

source: Toronto Globe and Mail