Should Parents Be Punished for Teen Drinking?

In nationwide efforts to curb underage drinking, not everyone agrees about the burden of responsibility and even culpability that should be placed on parents. Many people feel that parents have only a limited ability to stop adolescents who are determined to drink and therefore cannot be blamed for teen alcohol use. However, many others feel that parents should be held responsible when teens drink at home, even if they are not aware of the drinking. A number of states in the U.S. have enacted “social host laws,” which create criminal penalties for adults in the event that underage drinking takes place under their roofs. Some of these laws are fairly limited and apply only to situations in which adults were actually present when underage drinking was taking place or provided the alcohol to minors themselves. However, other states have created laws that allow adult owners or occupants to be prosecuted under looser circumstances. Some laws permit prosecution if adults had knowledge of underage drinking but were not present at the time or if they are judged to have behaved negligently in some way that permitted underage drinking to take place on a property for which they are responsible. These laws allow adults to be prosecuted if they are judged to have failed to take preventive measures.

One Study Suggests Parents Often Know About Teen Drinking

Those who promote these laws say that underage drinking is often passively enabled by adults who turn a blind eye. An August 2014 study published in the Journal of Primary Prevention supported these fears, suggesting that many adults are fully aware when teenage drinking takes place. This survey found that only 5 percent of teens who reported having a party with alcohol at their house said that their parents definitely did not know alcohol was present. Seventy percent of adolescents in the study said that their parents definitely knew that alcohol was present, while 24 percent said that their parents probably knew that alcohol was present. Furthermore, the survey found that 64 percent of teens said that at least one parent was actually present during their last party.

Some Experts Believe Teens Are Safer Drinking at Home

One argument against social host laws is that discouraging teens from drinking at home might force them to drink in less safe and controlled environments. This might be particularly true during events such as graduation parties, where alcohol drinking is widespread and, perhaps, inevitable. Some experts believe that parents should be allowed to provide a controlled environment for the drinking that is going to happen anyway, which could help to minimize alcohol poisoning, drunk driving and other dangers. Others believe that even if parents have a moral responsibility to discourage drinking at home, social host laws are too intrusive and punitive. They believe that jailing or fining parents when drinking takes place in their homes is extreme and inappropriate in most cases.

Parental Behavior Influences Teen Drinking

The idea that safe drinking begins at home may have some merit, but it can also be problematic. There is no question that teenagers are safer drinking in a semi-controlled environment than without any supervision in a place they have to drive to and from. But parents should also be very wary of normalizing teen drinking early on. A study of adolescents in Chicago found that 12 year olds who were given alcohol by their parents were more likely to drink regularly or to have gotten drunk by age 14. Other studies have also found that teens that begin drinking before age 15 are more likely to develop alcohol use disorders later on.

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