Should Teens Be Allowed to Drink at Home?
Dr. Lisa and Reena get a letter from parents who are torn about allowing their underaged child to drink in their home. Dad wants the child to feel comfortable around alcohol, but Mom is not comfortable serving their teenager at home and wonders whether it's even legal to do so. Lisa explains what really matters in preparing your child for encounters with alcohol when parents are not around. She explains the concepts of hot and cold cognition and how they shape teen's choices. Reena asks, "What really works in making teens understand the consequences of drinking?"
September 14, 2021 | 25 min
Transcript | Should Teens Be Allowed to Drink at Home?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 47: Should Teens be Allowed to Drink at Home?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: I kind of miss having people over. Like large gatherings at home entertaining. When I was a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem I had a girlfriend. She was a stay home mom. Her husband was a Reuters bureau chief, and she threw the best parties, like on a Wednesday night, just invite people and I felt so European isn’t it? Like okay it’s school night. Like come on over. We’re going to do a barbecue.
LISA: That sounds wonderful. I mean not that I really doing big parties on Wednesday nights, but I miss people and parties.
REENA: She was the ultimate entertainer, and I have to tell you one thing she always said, she’s from Croatia, she said, you know, I started to drink and have a sip with my grandfather when I was like 13, so drinking wasn’t a big deal, and we always had this talk about how in America drinking is such a big deal, and it should just be a gradual part of the sort of life and not a big deal, and what stood out to me, Lisa, was this letter that we got in our inbox and it says: ‘Hi, I have listened to all your podcasts and loved “Untangled” as well and even if I feel like the week’s topic of your podcast might not apply to me, I’m always able to take some gems of wisdom away from it. So thank you. I’m writing today with a question about my 16-and-a-half-year-old daughter and drinking. My husband and I are on different pages when it comes to underage drinking. He wants her to become comfortable with alcohol around us. That way we can be sure nothing bad happens to her when she’s under the influence for the first time. He also wants her to start to know her limits, and not to be that girl who was so restricted in her late teenage years that when she gets out into the world she goes completely crazy with respect to alcohol. On the other hand, I guess you would say I’m more conservative and more of a rule follower. I understand it’s completely normal for teenagers to sneak alcohol, drink, and get drunk on occasion. I think what I’m really struggling with is allowing, or even encouraging her to drink in our presence. It is still the fact that we’re allowing it, and quite frankly allowing her to break the law, that I don’t feel right about. Maybe there’s some sort of middle ground to be found. I really value your advice and would love to hear your thoughts on parents condoning teenage drinking and allowing teenagers to drink with them in their home or on vacation in countries that do not have a drinking age. Thank you so much.’ What do you think about this?
LISA: I think it’s a great letter.
LISA: Actually, Reena, what do you think? Where are you on this one? Because this is something that you know reasonable people disagree strongly on this one.
REENA: Yeah no it brought me back to Anna Maria and my friend in Jerusalem, it just always stayed with me I wasn’t a parent at the time but I always thought to myself, when I have kids and I get to that stage, I want them to have a glass of wine with me and experience it and it not to be taboo because that’s when I feel like people go, kids go crazy.
LISA: I think a lot of people are of the mind, and actually I was raised that way, that you know having a sip of wine, you know, my parents’ wine if we were having dinner, you know little sip of champagne if they were celebrating something was how I grew up. I was still around plenty of high school drinking, and, you know, I took a pretty low key approach to in college and I think, you know, sort of as not as a psychologist but personally I’m like, yeah, you know, I think we do a lot of, worked for me and I’m sure work for my kids.
LISA: You know I think we can be in that perspective. So, the truth on this one, Reena, as far as I’ve come to understand it as a psychologist is you can actually go either way. Like I don’t have a strong feeling. Like you know if I have a strong feeling about something I’ll say it. I feel like parents can get this right either by, I’m going to use finger quotes, allowing drinking, you know, either by, I mean not finger quotes, by allowing drinking in their home with their under age child, or they can get it right by saying, no, you know, the way the law is set up is that you’re really not supposed to drink till you’re 21, and we’re going to stick with that. What matters to me is the conversations that get wrapped around it. To me, it’s much less important, you know, what the rule is. It’s much more important to me that the parent takes advantage of whatever rule they make to have broader conversations about alcohol in that kid’s life.
REENA: So, you’ve got to talk about it.
LISA: You’ve got to talk about it, and I want to pick up on the legal thing, because there’s sort of an interesting twist that a lot of folks don’t know about. So, in a lot of states, in Ohio where I am and I think where you are. I’m not sure. You can easily check this. You are allowed to serve your own child under age.
LISA: Yes the law recognizes that, and it’s not illegal to, you know, give your kid a glass of wine in your own home. You can’t give somebody else’s kid a glass of wine in your own home. That is always on the table, but one thing a parent might do if they’re leaning in that direction is like take a quick look, you know, am I allowed to serve my own kid, and I think more states are not the answer is yes, and so if you’re inclined in that direction I would actually use the way the law is set up to have the conversation about why you’re allowing your kid to drink with you.
REENA: So what would you say?
LISA: Yeah okay so here’s what I would say. I would say to them, so here’s how the law works. You are not allowed to drink outside the home. You’re not allowed to be served by someone other than us. What the law recognizes is that so much of where drinking goes wrong has to do with variables beyond the alcohol. That it’s not the alcohol per se unless you’re going to drink, you know, a lethal and damaging or dangerous amount. It’s what’s going on around the drinking because once you start drinking your judgment is compromised. You know you’re just not as sharp as you were. So, you watch, you know, say it’s the mom talking and heterosexual relationship, you watch your father and I will drink at home. If we’re out we drink less because we have questions about who’s driving. So same deal for you. The law recognizes that the dangers of drinking go way, way down when you are drinking in the context of parental supervision, in the context of family life, but that no longer applies once you’re no longer with us, once you’re out and about at a party, so we’re going to work with the law and have you, you know, share this with us, you know, maybe develop a good working relationship with alcohol is something that can be you know interesting to taste or a nice part of the meal, and we’re going to stick with the law, which is when you’re not with us it’s illegal, and it’s illegal because you’re in contexts where not having good judgment could actually be dangerous for you.
REENA: Do these conversations really resonate with teens? Talking about it like this?
LISA: Well, I love that question, right? Like it sounds so good in our heads. How does it land with them? Well, what’s nice is no matter what you’re getting at the issue that we’re not being big fat hypocrites here, like we are actually working within the law, and I think teenagers care about adults not being hypocrites. Now, does it translate to a kid being like, hi guys. You know I’m at this party and I follow the law. I don’t drink with my parents but I don’t drink with my peers. Probably not, right? Realistically not. But what it does open the door to is getting kids thinking about alcohol as one of many variables in any context, and so the way I talk about parties with teens is to say as much, to say, look, okay think about any situation you walk into. It’s almost like an algebraic equation. Like there’s a whole lot of variables on one side of the equal sign and there’s an outcome on the other. So say you’re at a party and your ride gets drunk or leaves and there’s sketchy folks there who are making you nervous. Okay so those are three variables. Now let’s say this fourth variable is you are stone cold sober or you have had something to drink and you’re not as sharp as you’re going to be. If you’re stone cold sober, what are you going to do in that situation? And they’re like, lock myself in the bathroom and call my parents. I’m like yes. And I’m like if you’ve had something to drink, you can see how now suddenly this becomes a much more tricky or risky situation. So it lays the groundwork for I guess what I would call like a variable-informed thinking about alcohol because the problem with teenagers is they’re very observant, and so if we are like, no you can’t have alcohol it’s bad. They’re like, okay well you are drinking and you’re not bursting into flames. These kids were at a party last weekend and they were drinking and nobody there burst into flames. Like they don’t buy those simple arguments because the simple arguments don’t match the data they themselves are collecting.
REENA: Wow. That’s good. You know I want to be that cool parrot who they’re okay drinking and everything, but I also want them to know I’m still in charge. I’ve got a moral backbone. How do you get it to resonate and drop with them so they don’t go nuts? Because I get what the dad is saying, and I think that’s why I’m a little bit more relaxed and would probably be open and welcome them having a glass when it’s appropriate with me, but I don’t struggle with the illegal part of it, especially now you kind of explained it about doing it in your own home, but I do worry about my kid going off to college and then suddenly joining a frat or going to that party and cutting loose and not understanding where those red lines are. How do you get them to understand when it can go all wrong before it actually goes all wrong?
LISA: That’s a tough one, Reena. You know these are times I want to be like, oh here’s the magic formula that will guarantee your kid’s safety.
REENA: Yeah. I want the magic formula.
LISA: I think one of the challenges that I consistently run into in thinking about teenagers and trying to support parents of teenagers is there’s nothing you can do or say they that will guarantee your kid won’t do something really dumb or may be dangerous, and and that’s pretty scary, right? I cannot right now tell you anything I can think of from all my years of experience that I’m like, oh if you do this this and this, your kid will definitely not go to college and you know get frighteningly drunk. Like I don’t know the answer to that question. But what I do now is if we always and everywhere frame these questions in terms of safety, that’s a good idea, right?
REENA: Does that drop? Does that resonate with them?
LISA: Well it does because their safety goes with them everywhere they go. You do not go with them everywhere they go, right? So if you say like, don’t do this. I think it’s wrong, you know, don’t let me catch you. Well, as soon as they can no longer be caught, and, you know, they may or may not agree with you on them on the moral wrongness issue, it doesn’t have that much traction, but if you’re like, here’s the deal. I don’t want you drinking in tricky situations, even a little, because your judgment may be compromised, and I don’t want you drinking a huge amount because that’s definitely unsafe, and to always have it be about safety, this is the best answer I can give you on loading the deck, you know, for them to not do dangerous things when they’re not with you. Some of my favorite research in cognitive psychology is around what we call hot and cold cognition. So, cold cognition is how we think when emotions are not in the story, like when emotions haven’t come into the situation. So, what I imagine like, you know, say it’s Saturday night and you’ve got a teenager and then headed to a party and it’s 5 p.m. and you know they’re going out later, and you like, listen, you know how I feel about drinking. You know it makes me anxious for your safety if you’re drinking when you’re at a party because parties are kind of, you know, there’s a lot of variables you don’t control, and in that moment a teenager will say to you, I totally agree and I get it and I have no intention to drink, and they will straight up mean it. They will often really mean it because it’s not informed by the emotion of being at the party. So, under cold cognition, conditions they think like 40-year-olds, or smart 40-year-olds. Good judgment 40-year-olds. Then what happens, that same good, solid kid goes to the party and a kid they’ve got a crush on offers them a beer, or everybody’s doing it, and their reasoning becomes hot reasoning, which is basically emotion-informed, they wish to be connected in, you know, part of what’s happening and the social desire takes over, and the next thing you know your kids drinking.
LISA: And so this is really scary to parents because they’re like, what? We had a conversation and the kid meant it when they said it. So the thing to do, Reena, is have the kitchen conversation at 5 p.m. and then say, okay, I know that’s what you want for your safety. It’s obviously, because I love you, it’s what I want for your safety. Okay, but let’s think it through. Let’s say you get to the party, so you start talking through hot cognition conditions while you’re still in cold conditions. So you say, okay let’s say you get to the party, and, you know, that kid you’ve got a crush on is drinking and asks if you want some, or you know everybody’s doing it and it feels suddenly you realize you’ve got a safe ride home. Like what’s the plan then? Your kid has to have a plan if you really don’t want them to drink.
REENA: But I have this sort of Catch 22 with it, but I get it. It’s great if you can have that conversation to have a plan, right? But by talking about these lands are you in a way kind of giving him tacit permission? Like it’s just understood this is going to happen.
LISA: You know I think a lot of parents worry about that, and I think in some ways it’s probably why we don’t do as much drug and alcohol education in schools anymore because I think there is a sense of like, if you talk with them about the risks of drug and alcohol, you know, you’re basically acknowledging that they use drugs and alcohol, which basically amounts to permission. I totally disagree with this view. The way I see it, and the way I talk with teenagers about it, is we actually have to deal, not with the social lives we wish they had, we have to deal with the social lives they do have. And so, I think the way to bring it up is to say look, I get it that you go to parties where there’s drinking. I get it there’s going to be a lot of forces around you to get you thinking about drinking. Me acknowledging that there’s drinking at these parties is not me saying I think it’s okay. Me thinking with you about how you’re gonna navigate these moments is not me saying that I’m okay with you drinking. Like this is actually me trying to think realistically with you about how you maintain your own safety, and then I would say to them like, you know, if our rule is you’re not to drink outside the home. Let’s say that’s a rule, you’re free to tell your friends that we have a history of alcoholism. You’re free to tell your friends that you take a medication, you know, that it’s contra-indicated to drink. You’re free to tell your friends that I’m, you know, super controlling and I’ve bought a breathalyzer and I check you on the way. You’re free to tell your friends anything you need to if we’re going to make a rule that you’re not going to drink.
REENA: What do teens tell you when they come to see you for therapy? Are they okay with being drunk and out of control? Like I’m curious what teens really think about going to these parties and being in these positions because I remember there were times where I wasn’t really interested in doing it, but everyone else is there, right? So much of the teenage years I feel like it’s about that emotion.
LISA: Yeah. I think it’s hard I think, honestly, Reena, I think a lot of times if you like what parents are saying, what adults are saying, doesn’t line up with what they’re encountering. You know that adults are saying, don’t drink. Like go to the party but don’t drink, or don’t go to parties where there’s drinking, and kids are like, okay well if you’re saying don’t go to parties where there’s no drinking, you know, where there’s drinking, like I might as well not have much of a social life. I think for a lot of kids it feels like that. Or two, you don’t get it about how complicated it is once I show up there.
LISA: And so I would much rather have a sleeves rolled up conversation of let’s assume you’re going to get there, and let’s assume there’s going to be a lot of drinking, and let’s assume you’re going to be leaning in that direction. How do you maintain safety? Like talk me through it, and then, Reena, honestly, even though I feel like it’s contradicting everything, I still think it’s really important to say this. I think a parent has to say, if something goes sideways, if you are in a tricky situation, if the party is not what you thought it would be. If you find yourself compromised because you’ve been drinking and you’re worried about your safety, you call me. I will come get you from anywhere at any time. I will never make you sorry that you asked for my help. Safety. Safety. Safety. That is the only thing that matters here.
REENA: Wow. That is great. I will never make you sorry for calling me if you need help in a situation like this.
LISA: Absolutely. LIke we want our kids to be safe.
REENA: Yeah, so true. So going back to this letter, Lisa.
REENA: Who’s right? The mom who feels uncomfortable because she says it’s illegal, or the dad who says I’d rather this be a safe environment where she can try things and be aware and not be the crazy kid who had restrictive parents and then went crazy.
LISA: Yeah. I think they’re both kind of right, but the mom’s right, actually for me not for the legal reason, there’s another reason that I think has more traction and more research about why we would not want kids to drink. So, I can go either way. I see the dad’s point about, you know, we’d rather you do it here with us and then you can use the whole contextual argument about, you know, because we’re teaching you about context and drinking and how they go together, and you know we don’t drink a lot and you drink in places where everything else is under control so you’re safe. You know I think there’s a lesson to be had there that’s valuable, but you have to talk it all through with the kid. The reason to not let kids drink at home and to try to prevent drinking elsewhere is actually a pretty interesting developmental reason, and it’s worth articulating this to kids, which is everything in adolescence is felt more intensely, and this is true for both pains and pleasures, you know, so you know when teenagers are upset, they’re super upset. When teenagers have something that feels good the intensity of it is amplified by the nature of being a teenager, and so there is research that points to a concerning possibility that, you know how for some people like they really love the way drinking feels. There is grounds to be mindful of the possibility that a kid who has the biology that makes drinking feel really, really good if they encounter that as an adolescent, that’s actually going to be amplified even further by the kind of steroid quality of adolescent emotionality, and so there is grounds for worry, and I would say probably especially if there’s a history of alcoholism, which does often have a genetic loading of like it being quite an enjoyable experience to drink, there is something to be said to a kiddo of basically like, you know how you feel stuff really intensely? Well alcohol can feel pretty good, and if you have the experience of it feeling really, really good for you right now because you’re a teenager, that can stack the deck towards you drinking more than you should or maybe drinking in a really unhealthy way. So, I’m going to ask you to wait until you are out of the height of adolescent emotionality before you get yourself involved with this just so that you don’t put yourself in a position you never meant to be in.
REENA: Wow. This is so interesting. This conversation, I just, you remind me of how many topics that we take for granted that we just think kids will kind of figure it out, and this is one of those where I’m grateful of you explaining that having these talks can really make a difference, and does resonate in that crazy teenage brain on some level.
LISA: It does, and they care what we think. Actually, that’s really important. They care what we think, and they don’t give us very satisfying responses to these conversations. Like I think if a parent’s like, okay I’m going have the alcohol talk and we’re going say, you know, this is the law, and this is why we don’t want you to or whatever, they should not think like their kids gonna say back, man I’m so glad you walked me through your feelings about drinking, right? They don’t do that. They’ll be like, whatever. They’ll roll their eyes and walk away. When we look at the data, Reena, kids’ behavior is very much shaped by parent opinion.
LISA: And far more than they let on, and so it is worth it to say look, this is our value as a family or this is why we don’t want to do it or this is related to safety. Even if you don’t get a satisfying response in the moment, parents should not underestimate, especially with a good explanation, they should not underestimate the impact of those words on how a kid acts when they’re not with the parent.
REENA: That’s so good. I am upset with my parents that my mom thought Manischewitz was a suitable drinking wine.
LISA: Oh god.
REENA: My wine palate has evolved.
LISA: Maybe that was her plan, Reena.
REENA: That’s what I’m wondering. I’m going to hang up and ask her.
LISA: Wait, did you introduce me to awful tasting wine as a way to shake me off of it?
REENA: No interest.
LISA: Your mom may have known exactly what she was doing, Reena.
REENA: That’s exactly what I’m starting to think. Oh, Lisa, before we go. Parenting to go. What do you have for us?
LISA: I’m just going to hammer this home, Reena. Safety. Safety. Safety. Anytime we are making a rule, especially for a teenager, frame it in terms of safety. All of the rules we make for teenagers are safety-related. Drinking, driving, you know, romantic activity, messing around with substances. The reason we don’t want to do these things is because they are unsafe. Always frame it in terms of safety. Safety goes with your kid everywhere they go. You do not.
REENA: Great advice. And I know it is the time of year where parents are dropping freshmen off to college. Next week, we’re going to talk about how often you should be in touch with your college freshman and what you should do to prepare your child for freshman year. I’ll see you next week.
LISA: I’ll see you next week.