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Let's talk about alcohol and teenagers.

I am a rural family practice doctor and get to speak to people of all ages about alcohol. I see parents nearly abandon their teenagers "because I can't control him/her." I find this heartbreaking. Teenagers need parental voices more than ever, yet some parents have essentially checked out by the time the child is 14.

At Thanksgiving, we were at a friend's. Me, my X, the Introverted Thinker, my date and the friend. Gatherings are a bit like that currently. Surreal.

The friend was telling us that his X had called him, concerned. She had found a container full of empty beer cans in her house. They have a 17 year old and share custody. I have a 17 year old and a 12 year old.

The friend went to his X's house and they confronted the son. The friend lectured the son, saying, "Son, I'm very disappointed that you didn't recycle these cans." No message about not drinking. The friend said, "Well, they're going to drink."

Later, the Introverted Thinker said, "I don't think he should have told that story in front of me." I said, "I agree and I don't think it is funny and it is not okay with me if you or your brother drinks. I'll throw the book at you."

Why would I throw the book at my kids?

First, the brain is developing in puberty. PET scans have shown that a lot of the connections melt and the whole brain is rewired: starting around age 11 or 12 and not finishing until age 25. Yes, I will repeat that: the brain is not mature until 25.

If you mess up memory storage with alcohol or marijuana or other drugs, you delay maturation. A therapist said to me that the emotional development essentially stops while people are drunk or high. Have you had the experience of dealing with someone in a 50+ year old body who acts worse than your 12 year old? That may be their emotional age.

Teens are more likely to crash cars than adults, even though their reaction time is better. Fully half of the crashes do NOT involve drugs or alcohol. Why does a car full of teens crash?

One study divided the teens into early (12-16), middle (17-20) and late (21-25). A randomized double blinded clinical trial, of course. The teens and young adults were to bring two friends. After acres of paperwork to consent to the trial, they played video games. The teens played twice: once alone and once with the two friends in the room. They were behind one-way glass, so that they could be observed.

The results were that the teens played much better and died less in the game when they were alone. When the friends were present, they clowned, showed off, got worse scores and died more often. It was worse in boys than girls and worse in the youngest group. The middle group died a little less and the 21-25 year olds were less distractible.

Thus the laws about teens not driving with other teens in the car. As the evidence piles up, the ages will be raised and the laws will be stricter.

In clinic, at teen physicals, I ask the teen what the most common cause of death is for their age group. Most of them can tell me: car wrecks. I tell them that they are reaching the age where they have to be responsible about getting in a car. Not only should they not drive impaired, but do not get in a car with an impaired adult or impaired friend. And if your friend is a terrible and excitable driver, do not ride with him or her, especially if 5 other kids are piling into the car. Have some cash and a back up plan to get home, at all times.

I also would throw the book at my children because drinking is illegal for them. Why?

I lived with family friends of my parents in college for a year. The mom was putting clean laundry in her 14 year old son's room one day and found a package, addressed to someone else. It was postmarked. She concluded that he had stolen it. She thought about yelling at him and punishing him and she thought about her husband yelling at him and punishing him.

Instead, when he came home, she called the police.

A nice policewoman came and told him all of the consequences of theft. What happens at age 14, sealed records, what happens at age 16. He returned the package and wrote a letter of apology.

He was FURIOUS at his mother. "How could you call the police on me?" he said.

"I want you to know that I will not shield you if you choose to break the law. I will report you." she said.

This is the message that I give to my children. If they are breaking the law, I will not shield them. I would rather that they get caught and deal with the consequences as a minor, than have it permanently on their record as an adult. I will report them myself if I find them drinking. Yes, it may affect sports. Yes, it may affect school. But if I shield them until they are by themselves, out in the real world, I would be doing them a disservice.

The message has been clear for my son. He and a friend would come check in with me, at age 14. They were trying to protest about a store moving in to town. "Is it illegal to soap the windows?" my son asked. "Yes." I answered. They thought up a number of creative protests, many of them illegal. They had asked, "how can we follow the law if we don't know what it is?" "Ignorance of the law is not an excuse in this country. You are expected to know the laws." I replied. So they would check in.

Our teens may appear to not be listening but they still are listening. They listen to our words and they watch our actions. We still have influence.

I have to take the consequences of breaking the law too. The Introverted Thinker asks, "Are you speeding, mom?" "Yes," I say, "I'm going 30 and the speed limit is 25." She nods, thoughtfully. She keeps an eye on me.


tentative and I have been comparing laws and customs from her home and mine. quite different consequences currently.

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