When I got the email from my kids’ middle school about a presentation called “Why teens shouldn’t drink; and how parents can make a difference,” I sighed, thinking, oh no, not another DARE, Just Say No talk.
For the longest time, the speaker, parenting expert Mike Nerney, didn’t even mention the word alcohol. Instead, he talked about the teen brain.
Strip away the emotional charge, the fun, the kids-will-be-kids nostalgia for drinking and you end up with science. Pure science. Oh, how my emo self sometimes loves to hear from the rationalists.
First, Nerney talked about all the work that’s going on in the brain during the teenage years—namely, 200 billion cells are starting to connect. (The teenage brain was also well covered in a recent National Geographic.) He talked about how teen brains lack the balance of adult brains, where we consider all the factors before making a decision. If you ask an adult to set their hair on fire, they’ll immediately synthesize everything into a hell no, whereas a teen will actually consider it (hmm, that might be cool. Are my friends doing it?)
The most striking thing Nerney explained is this: When it comes to alcohol, teen brains and adult brains are worlds apart. We’re not the same in this regard–a good comeback for teens who say, “You drink—why can’t I?” or “Mom—drinking is BAD.” It’s obviously a good idea to model moderation for your kids, but you can have your your glass of wine without feeling like a criminal.
When you’re an adult, alcohol gets into the pathways and calms them down, making you feel better.
Alcohol actually excites teen brains. If you’ve ever seen kids pound beers at Spring Break, you’ll understand how much alcohol reenergizes their brains, and gives them a powerful sense of entitlement.
Nerney believes that the drinking age should be 24, because that’s when the body is actually ready to handle alcohol. He cited research by the American Medical Association, and studies at Duke University, in case we wanted scientific proof.
Drinking erodes parts of your brain—the parts that make you smart, such as the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Luckily, the brain is neuroplastic, and once you stop drinking, you can recover those parts that were lost.
The key, Nerney says, is to delay the onset of alcohol use long enough for teens’ brains to develop. If you approach drinking in terms of brain development, rather than a vague lecture that they equate with killing their joy, you might have more success reaching teens.
The other key is to verbalize to your kids that alcohol is dangerous—for their brains, and for their safety. We think they’re not listening, but somewhere deep down inside, they’re actually internalizing our values.
Finally, the best thing we can do for teens, Nerney says, is to offer them thrilling alternatives to alcohol that satisfy their need for risk-taking and novelty.