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Dr. Gilboa: Teens Can Do Hard Things

When there are enticements and pressures to drink seemingly everywhere they look, and alcohol is not so hard to obtain isn't it not only normal but likely that teens will drink? Shouldn't we face that reality, and focus our energies on finding safe ways to help them experiment a little, in the hopes that this will prevent bigger problems down the road? Really, how much can we expect of teenagers?

The short answer: we can, and should, expect a great deal from teens.

Teenage drinking gets a lot of attention for being prevalent, but the truth is most teens do not drink. As parents, our first obligation is to help our kids understand what alcohol is and isn't, and why underage drinking is dangerous. There are great resources for starting and continuing these conversations, and such conversations should begin early. In truth, we start helping our children form opinions about alcohol from the first time they ask about a drink in our hand or someone else's.

Parents struggle to keep our kids safe from the perils of alcohol. Binging, driving under the influence, or getting a ride from someone who has been, taking crazy risks in a beer haze caused by overconsumption, all of these scenarios and more urge parents to search for new solutions. We're looking for answers, and we'll try just about anything to control this threat.

Some parents strive for control of the environment in which their kids drink, thinking that the drinking is inevitable but at least the dangers don't have to be. Even if that worked – and studies show that it doesn't – we parents can do better. We can challenge our kids to abstain from alcohol.

Why? Why would we stick our heads in the sand with a "Just say no!" policy? That would be foolish. Telling our kids to just say no is ineffective and disrespectful to the challenges teens face.

Do you know what else is disrespectful to teens? Saying they are too easily manipulated to understand the risks alcohol poses to the future they want. Assuming that they are too weak to walk away from danger. Deciding for them that they can't stand up to the lure of drinking.    

Instead of telling our kids to just say no, we need to give them reasons and strategies to avoid drinking. Our obligation entails asking our kids what the challenges are really like for them and helping them problem solve to be safe and smart in those situations.

Our kids can do hard things. They can live up to high standards, go against peer pressure, make the right decision when it would be easier not to. Will they screw up? Sure! Sometimes repeatedly. They will, in so many instances, fall short of our goals for them and their goals for themselves. In those moments they need our empathy, as well as real consequences.

We owe it to our teenagers to ask for their best. They deserve our respect; our highest standards so each can reach the brightest possible future. They need opportunities to demonstrate their responsibility. They require chances to show resilience after a mistake.

It can be hard for a teen to avoid drinking alcohol underage. Let's not lower our expectations. Instead, let's give our teenagers the chance to step up. Teens can learn to do hard things. 

Deborah Gilboa, MD, (aka “Doctor G”) is a parenting expert, family physician and member of Responsibility.org’s National Advisory Board. Click here for more from Dr. Gilboa.

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