The New York Times recently published an article by Ashton Katherine Carrick entitled “Drinking to Blackout.” In this article, Ms. Carrick described the aspirational blackout culture she saw in college- one in which students purposefully drink to excess in hopes of blacking out and being unable to remember the night. Ms. Carrick attributed this blackout culture to a variety of factors, including lack of other activities, the fact that alcohol is inexpensive and accessible, and other students viewing the behavior as socially acceptable. She also said that this aspirational blackout culture comes from the pressure students are under. Ms. Carrick believes that this pressure to succeed in college, compounded by the fear of failure, not only leads students to drink in excess, but also causes the increase in mental illness seen on college campuses. She says that this issue is compounded by the fact that students accept, and even encourage, this blackout culture.
Teens attitudes and values toward drinking generally start to take shape early in their high school careers. Research has demonstrated that parents can influence their children’s alcohol consumption by speaking with their teens. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has published articles about how parents can talk to their teens about alcohol. They recommends having multiple conversations with your teen - and making sure it doesn’t sound like a lecture! One way to begin these talks is to ask your child what they know about alcohol and why they think kids their age drink.
Given the myriad of myths that people have about alcohol, it is important to provide your teen with accurate information. Explain the effects that alcohol has on the mind and body, including its effects on coordination and slowed reaction time (which greatly affects driving ability), as well as difficulties seeing, thinking, and making good decisions. Tell your teen that beer, wine, and alcohol are all equally dangerous and that it takes, on average, two to three hours for a single drink to leave their bodies. Kids also need to learn that people, and especially teens, are often poor judges of how seriously alcohol affects them, and so they often underestimate how impaired they are.
As the parent, it is important to not only share your views about underage drinking, but to also let your teen know that you understand that teens drink and that they may face a lot of pressure. Inform your child about your expectations and provide your teen with good reasons not to drink, like maintaining their ability to make good decisions and stay safe. Emphasize areas where there are absolutes: never engaging in drinking and driving, and always being in a group to safeguard against being in a situation that could involve violence or unwanted sex. Make sure they understand that while you don’t condone drinking, and that there are consequences to this behavior, their safety comes first. Explain that if they do drink or end up in an unsafe situation, they can call you and get help. Being available to help your child navigate their first exposures (and mistakes) with alcohol can help them learn safety lessons earlier on and protect against later problem when alcohol is more available and acceptable in college.
Parents play a big role in their children's’ lives and can dramatically influence whether and how their teen drinks or not. Make sure to talk to your kids so they have the knowledge they need before heading off to college!