Like it or not, these days it’s not when a teenager will drink but rather when, where, and how much? The alcohol experience is well underway in high school, sometimes starting tentatively in junior high. This experimentation is fueled by wine coolers, beer, or an eclectic choice of alcoholic novelties like the new shot-sized beverage called Spykes. Critics call it a lure meant for minors with guzzle-easy flavors like mango, lime, and chocolate.
Marilyn Saks had a good look at what kids are drinking when her son, a Memorial High School senior, and his friends rented a party venue downtown. The kids invited thousands of teens, charged a cover, and hired plenty of security to cover liability.
“You should have seen all the alcohol and stuff that was confiscated before these kids even got in the doors. They set up all the items along the wall and it looked like a bar. There were cigarettes out the ying-yang. It was unbelievable,” explains Marilyn. “They were very inventive with how they snuck things in.”
Booze-ban rules are enforced at school sanctioned events. That’s why a more private ritual has grown in popularity in recent years. Teens are making elaborate plans to work up their buzzes at a pre-party and recapture it at the equally popular after-party.
“What’s shocking is parents know about the pre-parties but they have no idea what’s really going on at these things,” says a senior at St. John’s who wanted to remain anonymous. “The pre-parties are held at houses, and it’s the parents who are providing large amounts of alcohol to the kids.”
Counselors say it’s a common problem.
“The teens are going to make choices on whether or not they drink regardless of what their parent says. But it’s really challenging for the teen when the parents are providing it for them,” says Sasha McLean, LMFT, therapist and program manager of the highroad adolescent program at the Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston. “Who isn’t going to have a couple of drinks if it’s free and everybody else is drinking.”
The St. John’s student says it’s not about teens just having some fun. This kind of partying often pushes the limit on having a good time.
“Someone is always throwing up. Anytime there’s a big party there is always an instance where one, two, or three kids go to the hospital,” he says.
A dangerous outcome when too much is consumed too quickly.
“The problem is these young girls are not eating and they drink a lot really fast because the pre-party only lasts a certain amount of time, and they all want to rush off to whatever the event is. It just leads to higher rates of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related accidents,” says Sasha.
Parents who host a pre-party or let their children attend them see it more as a safety precaution.
“We always thought that the upside of the pre-party was that we took driving out of the kids’ hands. They always met and then got on a bus. That was really valuable to me,” says Laura Moffitt who had four kids, including triplets, at Bellaire High School. Her sons were members of the Bellaire Men’s Club and her daughters were members of Bellaire Women’s Ingenue.
“When my kids had pre-parties they were at the homes of people we knew—people who knew them and loved them. In a simple world, I wish that they wouldn’t drink or approach the boundaries. I wish they would stay home and sit on my lap, but I didn’t have those kinds of kids,” says Laura.
Of course on each campus, public or private, there remain holdouts convinced drinking is uncool and hardly the key to having fun.
“On a Monday morning at school, it’s really common to hear talk about drugs, alcohol and how drunk someone got over the weekend,” says Garrett Boone, a Memorial High School junior who is convinced he’s a rarity on campus as a non-drinker. “I think a lot of teens think it just makes things more fun. Whoever gets the most drunk is the highlight of the party. I guess some people want to be that guy.”
BHS senior and general manager of the Bellaire Men’s Club Jerry Jen-Hao Chen says the problem is largely due to peer pressure.
“I think my peers think alcohol and drugs are required to have a good time at the pre-party and that’s definitely not true. We can have fun without resorting to that kind of abuse,” says Jerry.
• Confusion (stupor)
• Slow or irregular breathing
• Pale skin
• Low body temperature
• Unconsciousness (passing out)
What to do:
• Don’t panic
• CALL 9-1-1 IMMEDIATELY—YOUR FRIEND’S LIFE IS ON THE LINE
• Turn the person on their side and stay with them
• Gather vital information for the EMTs: everything that was consumed, how much, and any medication/health issues
And yet the social and philanthropic club, made of 250 junior and senior men from public and private high schools, is battling a reputation crisis.
It’s why Joan Oshman wouldn’t let her son, a baseball player, join the popular student organization that helps raise funds for nonprofit charities.
“I didn’t let him join BMC because I know it’s nothing more than a drunkfest. I know some parents who drove the liquor down to Galveston for the after-parties,” says Joan.
BMC board president Randy McKinney says the club doesn’t condone it and doesn’t like it.
“BMC is trying to push a culture of responsibility and accountability that other organizations don’t care about. We’re more public, we’re doing things in the community. It’s a party with a purpose,” explains Randy. “As youth develop they need that social aspect in their lives, but it’s the choices they make that are critical and it’s the choices that their parents make with them that are important.”
Others agree teaching responsibility and awareness is a first step. Catholic High School leaders in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston joined forces to combat the problem. This spring, a letter went out admonishing parents who support underage drinking. An excerpt reads: “Whether they are more or less supervised by a bus driver hired for the evening or carefully watched by a parent, arranging a situation that allows or promotes underage drinking is dangerous, illegal, unhealthy, and immoral.”
Drug and alcohol counselors warn that providing a safe haven for kids to do illegal activity is statistically more dangerous.
“They’re creating the place and the avenue and a danger in terms of lawsuits from other parents. You host a party and one of the young people gets rushed to the emergency room later that night for alcohol poisoning. Everybody starts backtracking where was this young person and everybody can locate him or her at your home drinking alcohol that you purchased for a minor. It’s a huge liability. Plus you don’t know what other kids are doing,” says Sasha.
Marilyn Saks wasn’t surprised that kids tried to sneak alcohol into the for-profit party thrown by her son and his friends.
“I’m not naive, but I’m also not smart enough to say I know everything they’re doing . . . I don’t want to totally insulate my kids from what’s out there,” says Marilyn.
She and the other parents were more nervous about the possible liability and retribution in throwing a for-profit party. In the end Marilyn chose to encourage her son’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“I’m in sales, I take risks everyday. I did want to encourage that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that was important and I also wanted him to know that I supported him whether he succeeded or failed—that was critical,” says Marilyn.
And it seems a party where the alcohol doesn’t make it inside is considered a bust. Youth counselors blame social acceptance on the ever-increasing problem of underage drinking. Parents and students wary of drug use view alcohol as a “lesser evil.”
“I think parents do a great job of saying we have a no-tolerance policy and if you drink and get caught there will be consequences for it, but yet through their actions they are showing something very different. Parents need to be extra vigilant and conscious of what messages they are showing their kids through their own habits,” says Sasha.
And since peer pressure indeed is driving kids to experiment at younger ages, having a discussion about alcohol with your child may be one of the best tools you can give them.
“Parents should make sure they have previously set up boundaries and consequences for their kids,” says Sasha, who advises parents not to give a 45-minute lecture to their kid who has come home drunk. Rather, she says, “Set up the boundaries and consequences ahead of time, then the kid understands that if they choose this behavior they know what’s at risk.”
It seems leading by example remains the most poignant, proven, and powerful method of teaching.