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Question: My husband thinks that we should let my teenager and her friends drink in our home. He thinks it is better to know where they are and that they are safe since they are going to drink anyway. I worry that it sends the wrong message allowing them to drink in our home but I, too, am concerned about safety and don’t want my daughter to get into a car with someone who has been drinking. How should we handle this?

 

Answer: This is a common question from parents that comes up all the time in counselling. You and your husband are looking for strategies to keep your daughter safe and talking about it together. That is really great. However, what I would like to help you think through (and others who read this article) is really about a larger strategy of safety and prevention because in the end, your question and possible proposed solution will have minimal impact on (positively or negatively) keeping your daughter safe. Let’s look at this issue of teen drinking in a more holistic way and then I will more directly answer your question.

I only have so much space for this article, so I will narrow my response to you based on what I think are actually the four most important strategies to keep your daughter safe if and when she decides to drink.

The most important strategy relates to her seeing you and your husband drinking, or not drinking, in a responsible and healthy way. You two are the most important role models in her life. How much of a role does alcohol play in your daily life? Do either of you drink to excess? Do you “need” to have a drink or two every night? Is alcohol a part of all of your social activities? Do you drink to deal with stress or anxiety? Does your daughter get to see you in social situations where you are really comfortable and not drinking? Our children learn how to be in the world by watching how we are in the world. If you always drink when in social situations, and drink to excess, then she may very well do that too without any hesitation. I would suggest that the first thing you and your husband do is sit down and talk about your own relationship with alcohol. Is there anything you would change so she could witness you both being very healthy in your own drinking?

The second strategy is to build confidence and self-esteem within your daughter so that she can stand up to her peers who insist that she keep drinking past where she is comfortable. This is what will keep her from getting into a car with someone who has been drinking and help her say no to any other situations that could be unsafe for her physically or sexually. Anita Roberts from Safeteen International has it right when she says, “Teaching our children to make choices from a place of inner wisdom can be the best prevention strategy of all.”

The third strategy is to find constructive ways for your daughter to deal with any anxiety, shame, or general doubts about herself in connected and not disconnected ways. Teens who do not know what to do with these “bad” feelings can use avoidant strategies (not going to school, sleeping too much, disordered eating and alcohol/drugs). They are more likely to be the one’s who drink to excess to “numb” their feelings and escape. Teens who are connected with others (parents, siblings, friends, a counsellor) and understand that talking with another person can soothe them, are less likely to use alcohol in destructive ways.

The final strategy is all about containment, rules, and other activities to keep your daughter safe. This is important because even teens that have healthy self esteem, minimal anxiety, and healthy parental role models can get themselves into unsafe situations and be at risk. Some of these are “old school” but still work. Set an early curfew, wait up for her (she will stop drinking earlier if she knows you are going to make her talk to you when she comes home), be clear that you do not want her to drink to excess (talk directly about what this means for both of you), and get detailed information about where she is going to be during the evening. We often worry about Friday and Saturday nights, but there is evidence to suggest that the most vulnerable time for teens is between 4pm-7pm at night before their parents get home from work. Keep her busy in constructive ways during this time. Is she active in sports, clubs, music, etc?

Yes, our children will challenge our rules and break them at times. This is to be expected so set the rules tight, so that breaking a rule might lead to a bad hangover, not a ride home from downtown with a stranger at 3am.

So let me directly answer your initial question about drinking at home. I don’t think that allowing your daughter and her friends to drink at your home is effective in reaching your long term goal of keeping her safe. It may keep her safe for that one night, but it might just as likely help create a permissive environment about drinking that won’t help her develop strong internal boundaries when she is out in the world with her peers. I would also be concerned about you giving alcohol to minors in your home and the possibility that your daughter’s friends could leave your house, go out to a party (unbeknownst to you), and you could be held partly responsible if anything happened. Again, I encourage you and your husband to continually think about the issue of your daughter staying safe in a holistic way, and to stay vigilant through her teen years. This is the time when teens need to continue to feel your limits, values, and rules – and not a time to relax and take your hands off the wheel.