The Consequence of Harm-Minimization of Teen Alcohol Use

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Today, many parents struggle with the perceived hypocrisy of telling their teens not to drink, not to engage in pre-marital sex, or not to smoke, when it is likely that they engaged in such risky adolescent behavior when they were teens.  Parents see many of these behaviors as a “rite of passage”, and they seek not to prevent, but to minimize the potential risk of engaging in such behaviors.   This is referred to as the harm-minimization approach.

Researchers wanted to know how this approach affected teen alcohol use and abuse.  In Victoria, Australia most parents embrace “harm-minimization” when it comes to alcohol use.  Teens are allowed to drink in moderation in supervised settings.  These parents accept that alcohol use is a normal part of growing up, and believe that by monitoring their teen’s consumption of alcohol they are teaching them responsible drinking habits.  In Washington, USA most parents are still utilizing a “zero-tolerance” approach to teen alcohol use.   Teens are explicitly told they cannot drink, and consequences are enforced if they break this rule.  Researchers surveyed 1,900 7th graders from the two cities, asking not only about general alcohol use, but problems with alcohol consumption and frequency of consumption.

By 8th grade, 35% of Washington youth had consumed alcohol, compared with 67% of youth from Victoria.  By 9th grade, these numbers increased to 45 percent and 71 percent respectively.    Over one-third of the Victorian teens also reported an alcohol related incident, such as getting sick, passing out, or losing control.  Only about one-fifth of Washington teens reported the same problem.   The researchers looked deeper and discovered that regardless of whether they were living in the United States or Australia, teens who were allowed to drink with an adult present had higher levels of alcohol use and were more likely to have experienced an alcohol related problem.  These findings challenge the notion that supervised alcohol use will reduce the risk associated with consuming alcohol.

Teens that drink under adult supervision drink more frequently, drink larger quantities, are more likely to drink themselves drunk and unconscious, and are more likely to develop dependency issues.  Set clear boundaries for your teens.  Let them know that alcohol use is unacceptable before the age of 21.  Know where your teen is at and what they are doing.  Get them involved in activities outside of school, lock up alcohol at home, and make sure you tell other family members and friends where you stand.    Support Social Host Ordinances that fine adults who host parties and serve teens alcohol, and report adults who knowingly supply teens with alcohol.

You can Be the Change in your community.  For more information contact the Chandler Coalition on Youth Substance Abuse at 480-821-4207, or

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