Psychology for Living

Gwen Randall-Young
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The reality of underage drinking

It is frightening to me when I hear about students becoming involved in drugs and alcohol, and at increasingly younger ages. Although they may not realize it, they are still children. From a physiological standpoint alone, they are still developing.

We know the damage that ensues when the growing fetus is exposed to alcohol. We know that, even in adults, alcohol damages brain cells. Our focus, with young drinkers, tends to be on the dangers of being out of control, especially around vehicles. We fear young women may become pregnant because the alcohol has affected their judgment. These are the obvious concerns most parents worry about.

The less obvious effects, with both drugs and alcohol, is impairment in thinking, but not only while drunk or high. The teen who is using substances on the weekend will not have the clarity of mind to absorb what is being taught in school on Monday, or to do assignments or tests to the best of their ability. Because gaining knowledge or skills is cumulative, the teen who uses substances regularly begins to fall farther behind in school. With increased academic difficulty, and perhaps pressure from teachers and parents to get their grades up, or assignments handed in, motivation for learning declines.

The individual is then more inclined to spend time with others who are not academically motivated, than with those who are working towards achieving goals. They may insist substance use does not interfere with their learning, but statistically, I think we would find a higher incidence of using among school dropouts and poor performers than amongst those who are consistently achieving in the top quarter of their classes.

Having said all this, I am equally disturbed by the fact that many parents condone alcohol use by their children who are minors, and provide a place where other minors can drink. Saying, "I know you will drink anyway, so I'd rather have you drink here," is a poor excuse for not being a responsible parent. It encourages kids to drink, and undermines parents who do not want their children drinking.

The best way to protect your minors from the dangers of alcohol use is not to provide a "safe" place for them to harm their bodies and compromise their futures. It is to teach them not to get involved in substance use until they are old enough to make wise decisions. 


Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning psychotherapist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books or CDs, visit

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