Teen Drinking Parties Put Parents at Risk

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by Krista Madsen

drinkingAs the school year ends and summer parties flourish, so too does underage drinking. Local police anticipate being busy issuing summonses to teens, but the underlying problem, according to experts, is with some parents.

“I see this shift in parenting where they want to be friends, and they give their kids so much freedom that they frankly can’t handle,” said Irvington-based therapist Amber DaSilva LCSW, who works with a number of area families in her private practice and hears many extreme stories she finds shocking. She believes parents take pride in their child being popular and “cool,” allowing drinking parties to occur, because, they assume it’s “safer” under their own roof.

But this perception of one teen’s safety doesn’t account for all the other teens present who have to get home eventually, walking or driving drunk. And for all the risks at play in the home itself.

DaSilva noted that teens simply don’t have the mental capacity yet to manage this level of responsibility. “The adolescent brain is not developed and the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning and making good decisions, is not fully up and running – at all,” she explained, “so teens make really poor decisions, specifically around drugs, alcohol and sex, which is then an issue when they are taking drugs and alcohol, since they are much more likely to have sex.”

There’s also the risk of addiction, if not now then later. DaSilva said the younger youths start consuming drugs and alcohol the more likely they are to become addicts in the future. “It primes the developing brain to crave that substance,” she said.

A deeper exploration of this condoned-drinking issue was prompted by a concerned mother of a Tarrytown teen who reported that the local house party invites are escalating in her daughter’s life – parties that often happen with parental blessing whether or not the parents are home to monitor the situation.

This parent, who didn’t want to reveal her name since her teenager is in the school system, believed that privilege is at play here. “These are ‘good kids,’” she said, “parents with nice homes, hot tubs, pools, and funds for the parents to leave for a well-deserved nice weeklong/weekend getaway, leaving teens home alone whom they trust.”

But, like DaSilva, this mother wants other parents to know there are real consequences if something goes wrong and that teens aren’t ready for this level of trust. “I see this as a public service,” she said of her need to talk about the topic.

If the physical risks aren’t compelling enough, consider the criminal and financial.

To curb this sort of parent-sanctioned teenage drinking, the county in 2008 enacted its own Social Hosting Law, whereby adults can be held liable, both criminally and in civil lawsuits, for knowingly hosting underage drinking parties. Parents can get fined or even jail time just for being caught, whether or not something goes wrong. And, of course, they can be sued. That said, these two local women believe offenders – both underage and adult – may get off too easy now in our communities with a “slap on the wrist.”

Tarrytown Police Lieutenant John Barbelet said the force “takes this issue very seriously and is constantly looking to see if incidents are occurring and how can we address them.” Tarrytown has had a full-time officer assigned to the Greenburgh Drug and Alcohol Task Force since 2004. The task force responds to calls and tries to “take a proactive approach” in their patrolling.

Though Barbelet thinks this issue crosses class, and race, lines and strongly opposes the idea that teens (and their parents) are getting a pass from the police, he said house parties might often fall under their radar. In Tarrytown over the last two years, he counted one arrest under the County Social Hosting Law, two arrests for Unlawfully Dealing with a minor, and 40 summonses or juvenile references for incidents of individuals under the age of 21 consuming alcohol.

“The issues of underage drinking is one that parents should take seriously as it not only can be a safety issue for the children but there are of course legal implications associated with minors consuming alcohol,” Barbelet said.

The Tarrytown mother said parents could lose their home when the property insurance policy won’t help you if you get sued. You trust your kid, “but what about the rest of the kids who come who you don’t know about?” she asked. “And how litigious are those other kids’ parents if someone gets hurt?”

A New York Times article a few years back begins with this strong warning: “Parents of teens: If you think a drinking disaster at your kid’s party can’t happen at your house, not with your kid, because he’s a good kid, it’s time to wake up and smell the whiskey bottle tossed on your lawn.”

In the Times article, SADD advisor Stephen Wallace commented, “Parents need to say to kids, ‘You shouldn’t be drinking at all, and you certainly can’t do it here because we can be put in jail.’”

SADD used to be called Students Against Driving Drunk. Now it’s called Students Against Destructive Decisions. But if the possibility of making “decisions” itself may be questionable, perhaps some tough love is in order instead.

“I have no qualms about banging on the door and dragging her out,” said the Tarrytown mother. “I’m not shy about saying, this is how I’m parenting… Kids are meant to attempt risky behaviors so they can learn and figure out how things work in the world. They are like toddlers bumping into things. It’s our job to keep them safe.”

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