Wasted Youth
Suburban kids are drinking alcohol at an earlier ageā€”and much of it starts at home
by Bill Donahue


In suburban Philadelphia, or anywhere for that matter, sixth grade can be such a vulnerable time. To begin with, kids this age are at the doorstep of puberty and have to bear the twin crosses of acne and peer pressure. And, more than ever before, they are also wrestling with another, more sinister burden: the allure of drinking alcohol.


“The temptation to drink alcohol will always be the standard and something most kids will struggle with; it’s just happening at an earlier age now,” says Donna Coyle, a mother of three from Lansdale. “I already started talking to my [12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son] about drinking and drugs. You can only do your best and share with them how you feel.”


Beyond beer and hard liquor, kids have gotten increasingly cunning in how they imbibe. One example: alcohol-soaked gummy bears—a far-reaching U.S. trend that came into prominence late last year—which can be easily concealed and shared in the schoolyard, at gatherings or even in the classroom.


Regardless of form, more than 5 percent of Pennsylvania sixth graders consume alcohol, according to the most recent Pennsylvania Youth Survey, which is a behavioral and attitudinal survey of students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. Compare that to the 2007 survey, when 3.3 percent of sixth graders—that is, 11-year-olds and 12-year-olds—admitted to drinking.


Skip Schwanbeck, father of an 8-year-old daughter in Pottstown, believes the difference between the haves and have-nots is often determined by what children do with their extracurricular time—and with whom they spend it.


“I might have rose-colored glasses on, but my daughter is involved in a lot of sports and it seems like it’s a good element to be part of,” he says. “That said, I was involved in sports, and that kind of stuff was pretty rampant by the time we were 13 or 14; it certainly wasn’t 11 or 12 back then.”


Are You Available?

Although the use of alcohol is more prominent among increasingly younger kids than tobacco or marijuana, data sources suggest alcohol use may be declining while abuse of other substances—prescription drugs, for example—is on the upswing. Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of the 2011 book “The Available Parent,” suggests parents have an upfront conversation with their kids about these real and persistent dangers.


“Parents hear scary things about adolescence and try to clamp down instead of trusting their parenting and wind up losing the connection with their kids,” he says. “And when you lose that connection, you lose the power to influence. … You need to be clear about what you care about—what you value—without lecturing. Express your opinion on matters of health and safety, with really clear rules and boundaries.


“It’s OK to tell kids it’s awkward to talk things like sex and alcohol,” he continues. “I’m big on the word ‘availability’ … and hearing what kids have to say even if it’s not what you want to hear.”


Yet some parents don’t discourage such behavior and, in some ways, encourage it. Everyone has met one somewhere along the way: the “cool” parent who lets a teenage son or daughter sip from a glass of beer or wine—if not have a glass of their own at the dinner table—maybe drag on a cigarette, stay out late, otherwise make their own mistakes. But “being cool” can have potentially tragic results. In fact, it can be downright deadly.


In June 2010 a Lancaster County woman named Norma Edkin hosted a get-together at her home and, in doing so, provided alcohol to more than a dozen underage drinkers. One of them, 18-year-old Joseph Blankenmyer, drank so much vodka he lost consciousness and died from alcohol poisoning. Last month Edkin was sentenced to six months in prison for the teen’s death.


Blankenmyer—or, for that matter, Edkin—is hardly a lone statistic. With prom season, graduation parties and other celebratory events about to get underway locally, many well-meaning parents in the Philadelphia suburbs will be tempted to let their kids—and their kids’ friends—drink alcohol at their homes. “They’re going to drink anyway,” a parent might say, “so they will be safe as long as I supervise.” Such a strategy often backfires, as Blankenmyer’s death so dreadfully illustrates.


Some children are permitted to imbibe even outside of special events. Of the more than 10,000 parents who responded to a recent MSNBC web poll asking parents if they let their teenager drink alcohol at home, most—68 percent—said, “No, never.” However, more than 28 percent (or 3,093 votes) said, “Yes, an occasional glass of wine or beer at dinner,” while 3.6 percent (388 votes) said, “Yes, whenever they want.” 


Doing What’s Best

It’s almost understandable how some parents might see the allure in granting kids such freedom, if only because they feel they are, in some way, trying to protect kids from drinking and driving. In 2008—the last year such data were available—25 percent of drivers ages 15 to 20 who died in motor vehicle crashes had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


“It’s not like I’m running out to get a lockable liquor cabinet, but everything you do as a parent, you might come away from your decisions scratching your head, hoping you’re doing the right thing,” says Schwanbeck. “It’s a cliché, but there’s no handbook.”


Teenagers who drink under their parents’ supervision are prone to developing issues with alcohol dependency, suggests a recent study by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The study maintains that the main issue is that parents who allow their children to drink do so without teaching them how to monitor their consumption, which can lead to overindulgence as they mature.


Coyle believes some of these instances stem from a parent not wanting to be “the bad guy.” 


“I think some people do it because they want their kid to be their friend or they don’t want their kid to be mad at them,” she says. “Some parents don’t stand up for what they probably know is right and let their kid roll all over them.”


Dependency issues and accidental deaths from alcohol poisoning aside, there are other dangers to letting children imbibe. Children who start drinking before age 15 are 12 times more likely to be injured while under the influence of alcohol, and seven times more likely to be in a motor-vehicle crash after drinking, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose nearest branch is based in Harrisburg.


Furthermore, alcohol negatively affects many functions controlled by the brain, including coordination, decision making and memory. As a result, adolescent drinkers often perform worse in school, are more likely to fall behind and have an increased risk of social problems, depression and suicidal tendencies. Finally, letting children drink at home can also hurt a child’s emotional development, as well as damage the parent-child relationship, according to Dr. Duffy.


“If you really let go and are a ‘cool parent’—the beer in the downstairs fridge disappears and it’s no big deal—kids feel like the parents don’t care,” he says. “I’ve never worked with parents and think they have cruel intentions. All parents are well intentioned and want what’s best for their kids, but I see parents do funky things all the time.”


One of the greatest risk factors contributing to children drinking alcohol at an early age is having parents with an unhealthy attitude toward consumption. In other words, it all comes back to setting a good example. Children learn to mimic the behaviors of their parents at “the very, very earliest stages,” according to Dr. Duffy. He remembers reciting curse words—relatively tame ones—by the time he was three or four years old.


“Whether they admit it or not, kids need some degree of structure,” he says. “The key is to be open to discussions about it. A parent may have such horrid fears that their kids will drink or smoke that they choose to ignore it, so by the time the child turns 18, those fears will come true.”


‘Not Harmless’

Beyond the what-ifs associated with their children, parents who let minors drink at home face some potential consequences for their own behavior.


Pennsylvania law states that any person—well-meaning parents included—who knowingly furnishes any liquor or malt-brewed beverage to persons less than 21 years of age is committing a misdemeanor of the third degree. A first-time offender faces a fine of up to $2,500 and a year in jail, with an additional $2,500 fine—and another year behind bars, potentially—for each subsequent offense.


Furthermore, Pennsylvania is getting tougher on adults who serve alcohol to those who are legally too young to drink it. As part of its efforts to quash underage drinking, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board now funds something known as the Source Investigation Project. Its emphasis: conducting investigations to identify how and from whom minors are obtaining alcoholic beverages, with the intention of prosecution.


Doylestown law enforcement is among those participating in the project. So says Melanie Swanson, prevention specialist for the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania Inc., a Doylestown-based nonprofit organization that helps residents of all four suburban Philadelphia counties through addiction prevention, intervention and recovery.


“If you’re a parent hosting an underage drinking party and you sanctioned it, you can be arrested and charged,” says Swanson. “There’s a perception that alcohol is not as harmful as other [substances], but what ends up happening sometimes is kids get in trouble doing other things because they are impaired. … It’s certainly not harmless.”


Regrettably, most children will be tempted to drink alcohol at some point in their pre-adult lives. Parental involvement, sources agree, is the key to keeping temptations from turning into tragedies. But at what age does one get involved?


“I don’t want to expose my daughter too early to things that are really bad in the world,” says Schwanbeck. “On the flip side I don’t want her to be naïve to them either. Ten years old seems to be the right time to me to start talking about drugs and alcohol, but you also want to able to ‘call an audible’ if you see behaviors happening around her and able to address them then. … I’m sort of scared of the point when or if I do have a whole lot to talk about with her.”