Partying. Everyone is doing it. Drinking on weekends and getting a buzz on is what being young is all about, right?
Wrong. It’s much more complicated than that. It’s true that 75 percent of American teens have given alcohol a try by the end of high school; 37 percent by the eighth grade. But it’s also true that there are studies that show another side of the equation. According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only a little more than half (51.8 percent) of Americans aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol. Apparently, giving it a try doesn’t necessarily turn into making it a habit.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
Contrary to many people’s perception that college students are generally out of control of their drinking, studies don’t bear that out, either. The average number of drinks consumed by college students is 1.5 per week. That’s according to the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study’s survey of 17,592 students at 140 colleges and universities. That certainly upends the myth that weekend drunks that start on Wednesday are an essential part of the college experience.
If your social group is regularly drinking more than that, it’s important to keep in mind not everyone thinks partying means getting wasted. Not everyone sees drinking as their primary activity for relaxation and recreation.
For the purpose of studies and bartenders, one beer is 12 ounces; a glass of wine is 5 ounces and a drink that includes 80 proof distilled spirits contains 1.5 ounces. If you order a 30-ounce glass of beer, you’re actually drinking almost two and a half beers, not one. If that wine you like at your favorite hot spot is served in a huge wineglass, you may be actually drinking two or three glasses of wine out of that one glass. Don’t kid yourself with the numbers or you may be surprised to find that you don’t pass a breathalyzer test if you’re pulled over. “But Officer, I only had one” doesn’t cut it with either your body or the law if the “one” was double or triple the definition.
Why do people drink too much? Curiosity accounts for a lot of first drinks. Some kids just like the taste or like the way it makes them feel. And some kids grow up in homes where they are given alcohol from the time they are very young by parents who regularly seem to confuse alcohol with water, both for themselves and their kids.
But the biggest reason for drinking to drunkenness seems to be that it’s difficult to withstand the pressure if the group you’re with sees it as a necessary part of having a good time. It’s not easy to risk being put down if you limit yourself more than others. It takes a lot of self-confidence to say “I’ve had enough. I’m switching to soda” when friends joke that they are just getting started. If you worry about what others think about you and the others in question believe that anyone who doesn’t end the evening embracing a toilet is a wuss, you’re in for a tough time.
Here are some things to remember in times when you’re doing your best to stick to a decision to limit or quit drinking when the partying begins.
First, it’s illegal. Yeah. I know. Underage kids do it all the time. But I did have to mention it.
More important: Your brain is still developing. Research has shown that the adolescent brain is more sensitive than the adult brain to negative effects from alcohol. Further, alcohol abuse (binge drinking, frequent drinking to drunkenness) during the teen years may lead to negative consequences in brain function, including memory and learning ability, into adulthood. Unless you are convinced you are so super-smart you can afford to lose some brain cells, maybe you want to put the brakes on.
Alcohol does affect self-control. It depresses the central nervous system, impairs judgment and leads to doing stupid things. People who have had a few (especially if it’s more than a few) are far more likely to do risky things like driving when they shouldn’t, or getting into a car with a drunk driver, or having unprotected sex – things you wouldn’t even consider when sober.
Don’t think for a minute that drinking will help shake you out of a depression. It won’t. In fact, it will make you feel worse. The idea of a party may perk you up for a bit, but the fact is that alcohol is a depressant. It reduces brain activity. Not only will you have a hangover in the morning, you’ll be even more down.
Tragically, drunk driving causes the deaths of 4,000 teens a year. You may think you can handle alcohol. You may think you are the exception. But, trust me, all those dead kids thought they were exceptions, too.
If you aren’t that concerned about your own life, think about what it would be like if you were responsible for the death of a friend or some innocent person who was just trying to share the road. As a therapist, I’ve sat with grieving parents and lovers and friends who have lost someone they loved because some drunk nut couldn’t stay off the road. I’ve also sat with teens who just knew they were okay to drive but who ended up killing a best friend, a kid on a bike or a mom who was carpooling kids when they swerved or fell asleep or didn’t react in time. Could you really live with that?
You aren’t weird if you say “no” to having a tall one or having another and another and another when you are out with friends. You are just using that brain that sits upstairs. You do have a choice about who you hang with and about what you do for recreation. However concerned and vigilant parents and other adults in your life may be, in the end it’s up to you to make a good decision about drinking.
Going against the crowd can be scary, but it can be done. Remember, only a little over half of teens are current drinkers. That means almost half aren’t. It’s up to you to decide where you stand.