Teens, Parents, and Drinking

a champagne glass with confetti to show you can have fun without alcohol

Parents, Teens, and Drinking

It’s not uncommon for parents to adopt the perspective that they can teach responsible drinking by allowing supervised drinking at home, usually at the dinner table. I’ve been deeply concerned about this, but now there is meta-research supporting my concern. 

The perceived logic is understandable: We’ll allow our teen to drink at home, under our supervision and our teen we see what social, normal, responsible drinking looks like. After all, children learn other behaviors and values through the modeling of parents. They learn how to greet people, how to behave at a church potluck, how to graciously accept gifts they don’t like, and how to laugh at Aunt Jenny’s joke even when it doesn’t make sense. Another reason a significant percentage of parents employ this strategy is the idea that if you made something forbidden, unknown, or mysterious, teens/kids are more likely to explore and experiment on their own, in dangerous and unsupervised situations. Allowing supervised drinking at home gives parents a feeling of security, hopeful that it will decrease the likelihood of teen-style drinking at peer parties. Finally, there is a smaller percentage of parents who want to be “cool” (forgive me, I grew up into adulthood in the 80’s) and be the parents who “get it.” There are parents who allow not only their own child to drink but allow teen parties at their home.

My concerns are that the premise is flawed to start.

Concerns About Allowing Underage Drinking At Home


  1. Age of first use is critically important Age of first use of alcohol is one of the determining factors on if, how quickly, and how severely a person develops an alcohol use disorder. It’s one of the questions professions are trained to ask during substance abuse assessments; it’s included for a reason. (As an aside, the same impact happens with behavioral/process introduction such as gambling or porn). Research has shown that introducing a developing brain to alcohol creates an exaggerated response and this can exacerbate the potential alcohol problem. I wrote a blog post about age of first use here.
  2. Alcohol use disorder is science; it exists in the brain and is turned on by alcohol use – In the brain of a person with an alcohol use disorder, alcohol itself creates the desire/craving/need for more. While it looks like a person drinks themselves into a problematic relationship with alcohol, it’s really that their brain chemistry and neural circuitry create a desire for alcohol that is not experienced in people who do not have that physiological response. No amount of allowing supervised alcohol use can turn off this mechanism or change biology.
  3. Teens don’t drink to enhance the flavor of their food Teens drink in ways that are developmentally driven. They use the disinhibitory effects of alcohol as a means of impulsivity, adventure, risk taking, and euphoria. They binge drink on purpose. While a teen may seemingly responsibly consume at home, that same teen is unlikely to decline peer driven alcohol experimentation, despite the relaxed atmosphere at home.
  4. In families where alcohol use is liberal or relaxed, “normal” is skewed.  I’m afraid I don’t know how to say this gently, so I won’t. But it’s not uncommon for people with an alcohol problem to normalize a level of consumption that is not healthy, and is, in fact, on the continuum of abuse.
  5. Allowing drinking at home reinforces the idea that fun = alcohol – My clients (of all ages) struggle as they process the idea of fun, laughter, and spontaneity without alcohol. I’m not sure when it happened that “party” became a verb, but the word assumes alcohol will be present. I work with clients to determine if the event is “alcohol centered” vs. other reason for gathering such as a wedding, but even that can become difficult when family and social group cultures morph rites of passage and seasonal events into reasons to (over) drink. It’s common for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter to be events in which copious amounts of alcohol are expected and consumed, obscuring the stated reason for the holiday.


colorful monkeys hooked together to symbolize family fun as we discuss the risks involved in letting teens drink at home


As a parenting tool and strategy, allowing the under-age use of alcohol doesn’t meet the criteria of well informed when presented alongside research and science. When considered against actual data and observations of teens in the US, allowing alcohol at home to teach them moderate use has many more risks and the benefits are perceived rather than actual. 

I have an older blog post about “What is Normal Drinking” that you might find interesting.

I’ll close with this: alcoholism is a developmental disease, typically triggered and turned on by the use of alcohol at an early age and made more likely by other circumstances. There is nothing that alcohol brings to the table (literally and figuratively) that is worth the risk of parents providing the catalyst in a vulnerable body.

If you need help with issues relating to families in recovery or struggling with substance abuse, contact me for a session. 


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