Prom Night and the Kids Are Going to Drink: What Do You Do?

Giving kids permission to experiment with alcohol isn’t always dangerous.

Posted May 15, 2015

Should we give our kids permission to drink at the prom (if the opportunity comes up)? Turns out the answer is, “It depends.” A number of studies suggest that letting kids taste alcohol before the age of 11 is related to higher rates of binge-drinking and other problems with alcohol later in life. Letting them experiment with alcohol when they are older, however, hasn’t been shown to lead to problem drinking as long as children know how to think for themselves. In fact, when studies show a link between drinking alcohol the year before graduation and later abuse of alcohol, the pattern can usually be explained by the culture that surrounds the child (Is alcohol consumption promoted as a socially desirable behaviour?), whether the child drinks to the point of drunkenness, and whether the young person joins a fraternity or becomes involved with peers who drink heavily.

In other words, a sip or two of alcohol during a child’s teen years is unlikely to predict that the child will become a binge-drinker as a young adult. In fact, how parents introduce their children to alcohol appears to be only one part of a complex set of factors that influence a child’s future pattern of alcohol consumption.
Sound confusing? Consider this scenario. Prom night is coming. You know your adolescent is likely to be around alcohol. Ask yourself, are my child’s friends going to get drunk? Is there a culture of binge-drinking among teens in my child’s school and has getting drunk become a rite of passage? Is there a social expectation that my child drink to the point of drunkenness? If your answers to all these questions is “Yes,” then research by a team led by Kimberly Mallett at Pennsylvania State University suggests you’d best have a frank conversation about what you expect of your new grad and set some serious limits and strong consequences if he does get drunk. However, if your answers are a little less certain, or you think your kid should be able to experiment a little, especially on graduation night, then consider the following strategies to help your child keep safe. Which strategy will work depends on a realistic assessment of your family’s values and knowledge of the real risks your child faces when beyond your front door.
Strategy 1: Abstinence. If your family is religious, or you have a strong moral argument against drinking (maybe a grandparent died from alcoholism, or alcoholism runs in the family), then telling your child to not drink at all can be the best strategy. Where there is a strong moral basis for you ruling out any alcohol consumption, or a real danger that the child himself can understand, a flat out “No” may just keep your child out of danger and sound reasonable to the kid. After all, if the threat is real, and you are sincere in how you express your values (that means you don’t drink either), then your child will likely appreciate the consistency and the caring that you show by setting limits.
Strategy 2: Tolerance. If your child has a lot going for him and he tends to know how to think through problems, and alcohol is around your home already, you may be wise to tell your child, “I trust you to make the right decision” and then remind her not to get into a car with someone who’s been drinking. Not much more needs to be said. Of course, this is assuming that the child has never been drunk, may have had a sip of alcohol already, and tends to have the confidence to think for herself. A child like that will appreciate the respect she’s being shown and likely avoid bad decisions. If she has a pattern of making good decisions in the past, prom night will be just one more test for her to prove she’s becoming more mature and is ready for more responsibility. Mind you, we shouldn’t forget to remind our child that drinking under age is still illegal. If she’s caught, there will be consequences that will be her problem to solve.
Strategy 3: Harm reduction. Studies of alcohol consumption patterns among children show that early exposure to alcohol is related to later binge-drinking and other forms of substance abuse, but only if there has been early drunkenness, a history of family problems (e.g., a parent with a drinking problem), or the culture surrounding a child condones the abuse of alcohol. In all these instances, where there is every indication your kid is going to drink on prom night no matter what you say, you may be better as a parent to talk honestly about the dangers alcohol poses, as well as what it means to drink responsibly, even if the child is still under age. I know this is controversial, and I hate to tell any kid it’s okay to break the law, but alcohol consumption is a status offence. That means it’s only illegal for kids to do it. If your child is going to drink anyway, and the risk is that she is going to drink to excess, then I reason it is my duty as a parent to preach harm reduction and give my kid the skills she needs to avoid more serious problems.           

When it comes to prom night, then, a harm reduction strategy could be reminding your kid that when you first start drinking it’s difficult to know how much you can handle. There’s nothing wrong with coaching a kid on how to nurse a beer all night, or to remind her to stay alert and pay attention to the dangers that come with being too drunk to make good decisions (about sex, for example). In many cases, parents can also help their kids develop safety plans before the drinking begins. Does your child have a $20 bill stashed someplace to pay for a cab home? Is her cellphone charged? Does she know you are willing to come and get her, no questions asked, at any time of night, if she feels like she’s in over her head and needs help? I’d even suggest you ask your kid to tell you what she knows about safe drinking and then invite her to give some good hard thought to what kind of prom night she wants to have.
Early Preparation is Key
The real preparation for prom night drinking, though, happens years earlier (though it’s never too late to start these conversations). A child who is helped to make good decisions early and suffer the consequences for bad ones is a kid who will be more likely to avoid the developmental perils that come with graduation parties, first sexual encounters, or being asked to get into a car with someone who’s drunk or high (all experiences which are likely to happen on prom night). That means it’s okay to introduce your child to alcohol early as long as it is in very small amounts. It’s hard to argue that a few sips of wine when a child is eight is going to destroy him unless there are also strong messages from rock videos and in every restaurant that tell your kid that drinking is “fun” and something you should look forward to when you’re an adult. In fact, a Swiss-led 38-country study by Emmanuel Kuntsche and his colleagues showed that as long as kids don’t get drunk early, and understand the risks associated with alcohol, they are unlikely to develop a drinking problem later on.

For me, it comes down to whether I’m offering my child a taste of alcohol as a celebration or an inoculation. If my intention when offering my child a drink at home is to show that “drinking is great” then I can see how a kid can grow up thinking that they have a green light to drink heavily as soon as they can get their hands on some liquor of their own. But a child who is handed a small glass of beer and helped to understand how it affects her and how quickly fun can become dangerous will, I think, be a child who is more inclined to keep herself safe. My hope is she’ll be that much better prepared to survive college frat parties without becoming the next morning’s viral video star.

In general, studies of alcohol consumption and children seem to tell us that our kids need parents who remind them to act responsibly and help them develop the social skills they need to make good decisions for themselves. Simply exposing our teens to alcohol because parents want their kids to have their first drink at home, not in a bar or college residence, is not likely to prevent problem drinking if there is no conversation afterwards. In fact, it could backfire and encourage alcohol abuse by signalling to our kids that drinking is acceptable, even if you are under age. That’s not the message we want to give kids.

Instead, parents who want to offer their children a first drink should be chasing it down with a healthy discussion about what alcohol does and the dangers it poses. An ounce of prevention, along with that ounce of liquor, combined with a heady mix of safety planning and practice problem-solving is the perfect elixir to offer a child who is going to have to survive prom night without an adult present.