My 16-year-old daughter is drinking

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 20, 2005

I didn’t want to start a fight, so I told her it wasn’t so bad. But I hate what she’s doing. What should I do?


 

Dear Cary,

I am trying to be a good liberal parent who stays aware of what her 16-year-old daughter is doing, yet not come down too hard on her. I am trying not to stick my head in the sand (which is what I see many, many parents doing). But I just am not sure I have the stomach for it.

Here is the situation: My daughter drinks. She confessed to me yesterday that in the past month she has gotten drunk at least five times. Maybe more, because, who knows, maybe she is just giving me the tip of the iceberg. She has gotten drunk at a party, at a dance, at a concert, at a music festival and, finally, yesterday, in a park. I confronted her yesterday, because the smell from her breath was just too much too ignore.

So, I confronted her, said I was concerned, and (maybe because she was drunk at the time) she then confessed at least some of the other times she has gotten drunk. She also told me that drinking was just part of her life now.

Now, my daughter really, really hates conflict. So, for that reason, and others, like I want to be the good, understanding parent, I sat and smiled and nodded and said, Well, it’s not so terrible that you’re drinking, but Daddy and I would really be concerned if it started interfering with other areas of your life. And smiled and nodded, and continued on with the safety and judgment discussion. No drinking and driving. How drinking alcohol can cloud your judgment, especially about things like having sex. And even said I would prefer her drinking at home if she felt she had to do so. At least she would be safe.

What a touching scene — except I go to bed that night and at 4 in the morning wake up and realize that I have just given my 16-year-old daughter carte blanche to do whatever she wants. And what I really feel is that I hate it. I hate that she is drinking. And I hate who she hangs out with. And I hate that we live in a wonderful city with a zillion things to do and she is choosing to drink it all away. At least if we lived in a small town, she would have the wonderful excuse that there is nothing to do. It all makes me so very sick to my not-very-liberal stomach.

I should add that my daughter is a 4.0 student, so it’s not like we can say, “You’re screwing up your grades.” Because she isn’t. I just hate what she is doing. And I want her to stop. And I wish I never asked. And I wish that I had kept my stupid head in the sand like the other parents that I sneer about. And I wish right now it would just all go away.

But it won’t. And I know I have to do something. Or rather, something else, besides my pathetic “Mom’s a good friend” response. I want so badly to do the right thing — for her, for us, for us all to get through the next few years. Advice? Help? Anything?

Beyond Confused

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Dear Beyond Confused,

I did some research.

“There is mounting evidence that repeated exposure to alcohol during adolescence leads to long-lasting deficits in cognitive abilities, including learning and memory, in humans,” writes Aaron M. White, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. He cites studies by Drs. Susan Tapert and Sandra Brown, alcohol researchers at the University of California at San Diego, that show alarming long-term and short-term effects of adolescent alcohol consumption. Their findings have been published in such journals as the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society; Addiction; Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research; and Addictive Behaviors.

White’s summary of those findings makes chilling reading. But it’s no surprise to those of us who did a lot of adolescent drinking and later became alcoholics.

“According to research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, adolescents who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.” The same research indicates that “generally, an adolescent’s risk for alcohol dependence at some point in life decreases by 14 percent with each additional year that drinking onset is delayed.”

So you have to do something. You have to try and stop her from drinking. How you do that, exactly, I don’t know. Sorry, but I’m not a parent. I know how to trick, deceive, manipulate and bamboozle parents. But I don’t know how to stop kids from drinking.

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For starters, however, I would try to shift your thinking about this a little bit, from viewing her drinking as bad behavior to viewing it as toxic exposure. You have the same responsibility to protect your child from alcohol as you do to protect her from mercury, dioxin, rabies, salmonella and the like. Viewing it this way may help you overcome your reluctance to interfere in what you may be tempted to view as harmless teen fun. It’s not harmless teen fun. It’s dangerous and potentially deadly.

Make this your mission. Consult local experts on teen alcohol abuse. Learn all you can. Get some support from other parents.

And one thing that may sound counterintuitive: Distrust your own instincts. Our normal social instincts, when confronted with a problem like this, are to be kind and understanding; we want to avoid conflict and seek harmony. Those instincts may work against you. Your goal is to keep the alcohol out of her system while she’s still so vulnerable to permanent damage. That is what’s important. We’re talking about permanent physical, mental and emotional impairment on the one hand vs. teenage angst on the other. Steel yourself against her spasms of teenage angst.

This may become a rough and ugly road, but it leads in the right direction. So hang in there.

There’s no guarantee that you can help your daughter; nor is she under some absolute sentence to develop an alcohol problem later on. When she’s old enough to make her own decisions, all bets are off. But while she’s under your care, I think that your job as a parent, unpleasant as it may be, is to do what you can to protect her from the effects of alcohol abuse.

Keep in mind that somewhere deep in her little teenage brain, however much she fights you, she may secretly be grateful. Because somewhere, secretly, deep in that teenage brain, she is probably scared to death about what she’s doing.

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