Underage Drinking:
What NOT to Do

It’s very important for parents not to over-react when they discover their underage child drinking alcohol. Most young people will experiment with alcohol and this is both natural and to be expected. To deny this is to deny reality. Fortunately, very few will abuse alcohol or ever experience alcohol-related problems during their entire lives. Therefore, it’s essential not to take any action that could have damaging effects on the child.

Well-meaning parents should avoid putting their children into unneeded treatment programs. It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially when encouraged by treatment providers who have a vested financial interest in providing such services.

Going into unnecessary treatment can be very damaging to young people, as the following letter illustrates.

I was put in several different treatment centers during 1985-1986 at the age of 14. Although I drank alcohol only three times and used marijuana twice. My denial of further usage was a Catch-22 for me. It ensured my place in treatment, because the "professionals" were operating under the belief that if I denied using I must be an alcoholic.

After being discharged unsuccessfully from one center because I would not admit that I was an alcoholic, I was admitted to an in-patient facility to help break through my denial. An interesting sidebar to this is that my parents were in a twelve step based treatment center at the time, so they had complete support for forcing me to find recovery.

At the last treatment center I was told that I could not go home until I admitted that I was an alcoholic and agreed to go to AA meetings.

At the age of 14, unsure of my identity and place in the world, I began to believe that I was wrong, maybe I was an alcoholic. I began to think that maybe the reason I couldn't remember using was because of "blackouts." So I agreed to attend AA. This began a 12 year membership in AA, from the age of 14 to age 26.

My identity as an adolescent developed with the belief that I had the disease of alcoholism and was different from everyone else. I dared not question this because my parents were in recovery and I was encouraged to spend time only with recovering people. All through those years was a nagging doubt that I was not an alcoholic, but I had grown up believing that I was.

It was not until my mid twenties that I began to have the courage to question what had happened to me and probably countless other adolescents during the 80's. In AA asking questions is not tolerated so I began to "sneak" and do some research of my own about diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence.

At this time I was working in a treatment center. I also received my degree in psychology. Upon researching the diagnostic criteria, I found that I met none of it. I began to do more research and left AA in the fall of '98.

The time to prepare for the time when our children begin experimenting with alcohol is when they are very small children. The place to look for guidance are those societies and groups in which most people drink alcohol but few abuse the substance. Such groups well known to most people include Italians, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, and Spaniards.

There are three keys to the successful use of alcohol beverages by these groups.

  1. the substance of alcohol is seen as neutral. It is neither a terrible poison nor is it a magic substance that can transform people into what they would like to be
  2. The act of drinking is seen as natural and normal. While there is little or no social pressure to drink, there is absolutely no tolerance for abusive drinking
  3. Education about alcohol starts early and starts in the home. Young people are taught -- through their parents' good example and under their supervision -- that if they drink, they must do so moderately and responsibly.


For more, visit Underage Drinking and Children, Alcohol and Parenting.


Ms. Mulcahy’s letter reproduced by permission.


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