When a couple decides to let their high school senior daughter stay home alone one weekend, they reminded her of the rule – no underage drinking at their home! Here’s what happened:
My first child is a high school senior. Lately, I’ve been overcome by anxiety over all the things I still want to teach her before she leaves for college. So when the opportunity arose for my husband and me to visit friends out of town, we decided it would be a good idea to leave our older daughter at home alone. She had never been in charge of the house, and I thought that she ought to have that experience – and all the “Risky Business” potential for managing tricky situations and temptation it would provide. We told her she could have her small group of close friends over. No more than eight in the house. And no underage drinking.
Her younger sister planned to decamp to a friend’s house, but we told our older daughter she had to stay home and take care of the dog. It was a chance to take responsibility for others beside herself – namely for us, the dog, and our property.
The night before we left, just before bedtime, she began lingering around the family room. She’s a good kid, and so far very straight. She tends to confess when she has a worry. This happens usually right before my bedtime. So I braced for it.
A conversation With Your Teen About Underage Drinking
Sure enough, it came out. Her friends wanted to get drunk. “It’s all they want to do, lately,” she told us.
“I see,” I said, or something equally noncommittal, as I thought about what I really needed to say. I wanted to make sure, most of all, that she would not regret communicating this information to us. I would never have brought it to my parents. I made my teenage mistakes all by myself.
“And what do you feel about that?” I finally said.
She admitted she felt pressure. She felt pressure to know what it was like to be drunk before going off to college. At the same time, she felt annoyed that this was what her friends wanted to do and where their focus lay.
“I can understand that,” I said. And then fear and that sense of needing to impart important information before she goes away rose up in me. I thought about the ways we could have prepared her better for underage drinking and the party scene. We could have given her a little bit of wine on occasion, so she would know what it felt like; but then again, she had never been interested.
“No drunk teenagers allowed in the house,” I said, trying to be both clear and light and serious simultaneously. It’s illegal, we told her. We told her that if anything happened to one of her friends while drinking at our house, we could be held liable under the law. Abiding by this rule would mean, of course, that if she were drinking, she would be drinking elsewhere. Exactly where? We live in the suburbs. It’s a car-centered community.
“But what if they show up drunk?” She asked. An excellent question.
“Say, ‘Let’s take a walk,’ and take a walk up and down the street. That can help. If the person is still really drunk, then call their parents. Seriously. Drinking too much can be dangerous.”
“Where do they want to get drunk?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. In the wilderness.”
“The wilderness?” We live, I repeat, in a suburb. I have seen remnants of teen gatherings in the form of a fire circle and crushed beer cans lying around it in the woods near us. I supposed that was what they call the wilderness.
“But no drinking in a car,” my husband said. “And no getting in a car if anyone has been drinking, especially not the driver.”
“I know, I know!”
“Look, you know you can absolutely and one hundred percent call us if you’re concerned, at any time. Unfortunately, we will be three hours away. But we can call a friend to pick you up. In fact, you can call – and here I reminded her of my two close friends who would drop anything to rescue her, just as I would do for their children. You must take their numbers in your phone if you go out.”
“OKAY. I don’t even really want to drink,” she said, now annoyed.
“By the way,” I said, as the horror of another information void occurred to me, “You do know that different kinds of alcohol have different strengths?”
“YES,” said with exasperation.
“For example, a half glass of wine, a bottle of beer – “
She interrupted me, “Yes, yes, I know, and a shot of hard liquor.”
“Okay,” I said. “But do you know that a shot of liquor is about an ounce and a half?”
“And do you know that drinking too much can kill you? It’s called alcohol poisoning,” said my husband.
“And just remember that teens when they’re drinking to get drunk want to drink fast,” I said, speaking from experience. “That can make you much drunker than you realize because it doesn’t hit you right away. So you need to just take a little at a time. And don’t mix the kinds of alcohol you’re drinking. It will make you sick.”
The look of misery on her face was not exactly what I was going for.
But I wasn’t done. I was on a roll. “Look, it’s normal to experiment a little bit. And maybe you’re not talking about doing it this weekend. But another time, later on, maybe in college, you will be at a party, and there will be drinking. Do not, ever, ever accept a drink that has been opened or uncovered, because someone might have put a Rufie in it that could knock you out and then you’re in a date rape situation.”
She looked more upset.
“In fact,” I continued, “Don’t accept a drink from one of your friends, if she’s drunk, because someone might have popped something into it while she wasn’t looking.”
This brought her to tears. “You’re scaring me! Now you’re making me afraid to do ANYthing.”
I felt we had perhaps overloaded her, but it seemed essential. If we had talked about underage drinking more often, the way we have talked about sex and birth control, we could have imparted information more gradually. But we hadn’t. Partying hadn’t been an issue. And honestly, I had conflicting feelings about teenagers and experimentation. I understood the urge; I wished my daughter wouldn’t feel it.
After we went upstairs to bed, I whispered to my husband, “Why doesn’t she just sneak around behind our backs like a normal teenager? That’s what I did!”
First thing in the morning, I texted my two emergency back-up friends and my neighbor to alert them of the situation. Then we drove away. I gave the house a last look.
We checked in with our daughter later that evening. She texted to let us know she was going out. She texted over an hour later to let us know she was back home and that there were exactly eight kids over, a couple of them boys. She wanted to know how to get rid of them if they didn’t want to leave. I wanted to know where they had gone, but I didn’t ask.
“Tell them your parents will be home in a half hour,” I texted. This was untrue, of course. We were at that time three hours away, ourselves a little tipsy.
When we did return the next afternoon, there was an unfamiliar bicycle on our front lawn. I asked how the weekend went.
“I didn’t even drink,” she said. “I didn’t want to. I watched my friends get drunk, though. It was kind of funny.”
I resisted the urge to ask where this had happened. I resisted the urge to check our liquor cabinet or look for other evidence of underage drinking. The neatly folded throw blankets in the basement were an anomaly. As was that bike in the yard. I had imparted enough information. I trusted my daughter; but she is a teenager. No, I definitely did not need to know any more.
Hope Perlman writes a humorous blog about redefining success. Her work has appeared in The Motherlode, Psychology Today, and the Huffington Post. She’s also on Facebook and Twitter more frequently than is healthy.