Should You Let Your Teen Have Alcohol at the Holiday Table? It Depends, Science Says

It seems like just yesterday that your son was sitting with his cousins at the card table in the living room for the holiday meal. Now, he is 18 and coming home for break after his first semester away at school. Of course he has graduated from the kids’ table — he has been part of the main event for several years now — but is the “college man” ready to enjoy the entire holiday grownup spread, including the Cabernet that you so carefully picked out to pair with the prime rib?  Maybe, and maybe not, says Rich Lucey, special assistant to the director at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). First, there’s the law to contend with. Although the minimum drinking age is 21 in all 50 states, the legal details vary. Thirty-one states allow parents to furnish alcohol to minors, and 30 allow minors to drink for religious purposes. However these five states have no exceptions to their underage alcohol consumption laws: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire and West Virginia. So after you’ve figured out the law in your state (and decided in some cases whether to ignore it), there are a few factors to consider before putting a glass of wine in front of Junior’s plate. “If a young person has no family history of alcoholism, and this is a very rare occasion for the parents to allow an older teen to have a glass or half-glass of wine at dinner, then that would be a low-risk situation,” Lucey said. “That’s very different from the situation around prom or graduation when parents will host or allow their kids to have a party, say in the basement. That’s a lot different and that should not be happening.” Lucey says SAMHSA is “in the business of upholding and educating about the law,” but more important, he said, the organization’s mission is about the health and safety of families and their communities. “It’s not the occasional glass of wine with the family that would lead to a potential for dependence later in life,” Lucey said. “There would have to be more of a pattern at that early age. But parents need to hold firm to that one glass. Only one. That’s it. Done.”

Brain on Training Wheels

Lucey’s hard line comes from a keen understanding of how alcohol affects the adolescent brain. Teenagers are not just smaller versions of adults. Their brains have not finished developing and studies have shown that alcohol has a very different effect on the unfinished brain, leading to long-term deficits in learning and memory. And this is relatively new information. Thanks to magnetic resonance imaging, brain development research has exploded over the last five to seven years. While scientists used to think the human brain was fairly complete by age 12, we now know that the brain continues to develop until about age 25. MRI technology also allows us to see that alcohol consumption during adolescence causes tissue damage in the brain, particularly if four or five drinks are consumed on a single occasion. “We seriously promote a zero-tolerance policy for those under the minimum legal drinking age for a whole host of reasons,” Lucey said. “Besides the legal consequences, there are the physical reasons, such as brain development, and there are also academic consequences [to underage drinking]. We know that alcohol use by those under age 21 affects their academics, whether they’re in middle school, high school or college. They’re missing classes, they’re doing poorly on exams, they’re behind in their work.” It’s a time when the brain is on training wheels, says Ken C. Winters, PhD, former director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research in the department of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. “The best-case scenario is to wait until the legal age of 21 to drink, and then limit use to two beverages per occasion and do this infrequently,” Winters said. “But if there is family history of alcoholism, then it’s best to not drink at all.” As for having a glass of wine at the holiday dinner table, Winters would make it a small glass. “I do not consider an occasional sip or half a glass of wine or beer for an older teenager to be a problem,” he said. “There is no compelling evidence that this ‘very limited sip experience’ is a risk factor. What is also important, perhaps more so, is for the adults to model responsible use.” Lucey and SAMHSA have been pushing parents hard to talk to their kids about the dangers of alcohol with such campaigns as “Too Smart to Start” and “Talk. They Hear You.” “It starts with the parents,” Lucey said, “because whether they believe it or not, our research shows they are the No. 1 influencers of their children. People often think it’s the peers, their friends, their coaches. Sure, they are influencers, but the parents are the most powerful.” And what if Junior asks for a refill at the holiday table? “He might say, for example, ‘Joey’s mom lets him drink,’ ” Lucey says. For parents, here’s a ready-made response, straight from the SAMHSA expert: “I’m not Joey’s mom. I’ve done my homework about what alcohol can do to your body and your brain and as your parent, I am not willing to take that risk and I’m not willing to let you take that risk.”

Never for Young Teens

To be sure, sipping or tasting wine at the dinner table is only for the older teens. Some researchers have found that parents’ providing alcohol to younger children is linked to earlier onset or increased drinking. For example, sipping or tasting alcohol by the age of 10 has been shown to be predictive of early onset drinking. The great news is that fewer adolescents are using alcohol. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, which tracks trends in substance use among students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades, results from the year 2014 found that all three grades showed a decline in the proportion of students reporting alcohol use in the 12 months prior to the survey; the three grades combined dropped from 43% to 41%, a statistically significant change. But if you are concerned that your child might have a problem with alcohol, don’t wait to take action. Asking for help from medical professionals is the first important step. You can start by bringing your child to a doctor who can screen for signs of drug use and other related health conditions or contact an addiction specialist directly. If you need help finding an addiction treatment provider, visit SAMHSA’s behavioral health treatment services locator at By Laura Nott Sources: Too Smart to Start, SAMHSA // Talk. They Hear You. SAMHSA // Parent-Child Divergence in the Development of Alcohol Use Norms from Middle Childhood into Middle Adolescence // Use of Alcohol, Cigarettes and a Number of Illicit Drugs Declines Among U.S. Teens //

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