Parents often have fears about their teens experimenting with alcohol and other drugs, especially marijuana. What many parents don’t know, however, is that the highest risk for alcohol and drug use is not the teens; it’s the 20s — the life stage psychologists now call “emerging adulthood.”
Once they leave home, with no parents to keep an eye on them, it takes many of these young adults until their 30s to replace parents’ control with self-control. And that self-control is especially needed when groups gather, as many will this Thanksgiving Eve, also known as Black Wednesday. The night before the holiday has become one of the biggest party nights of the year for college kids coming home and reuniting with high school friends.
For emerging adults, alcohol is far and away the most widely used and abused drug. According to the Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the University of Michigan, 40 percent of people age 21 to 22 report binge drinking in the past two weeks. (Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a row for men, four or more for women). Binge drinking rates then decline somewhat through the 20s, to 31 percent by age 29 to 30 and to 24 percent by age 35.
Most of this drinking is woven into the lively social lives of emerging adults. At a time when many of them are on the lookout for potential romantic and sexual partners, drinking lowers their inhibitions and makes them bold enough to risk a touch or a proposition. But of course there are risks in binge drinking, and potentially disastrous consequences. Being drunk increases the risk of just about every type of catastrophe for emerging adults — from the risk of an unwanted pregnancy to alcohol poisoning, which is life-threatening.
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By far the biggest danger resulting from binge drinking in emerging adulthood, however, is the deadly combination of drinking and driving. Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death among 18- to 29-year-olds. And drunk driving deaths track binge drinking age patterns precisely, peaking at age 21 to 22.
Demand a Designated Driver
So what can parents do?
The power of parents is limited by the fact that most emerging adults don’t live with their parents. They could be out drinking any night of the week and their parents would never know. Nevertheless, parents’ influence can still be substantial, even from a distance. The most important thing parents can do is to promote an ethic of responsible drinking, especially in relation to driving. Ideally, this begins in high school, when adolescents are first beginning to drive. Parents should talk directly to their adolescents: “Absolutely no drinking and driving, period.”
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It’s not too late to send (or repeat) this message in emerging adulthood, although it needs to take a somewhat different form. Parents no longer have the power they did when their children were adolescents; they can’t just lay down the law. Still, even in the 20s, this topic is important and serious enough to warrant the direct approach.
Emerging adults will almost certainly find this kind of direct advice irritating. As they approach adulthood, it becomes increasingly important to them to make their own decisions. They are sure to bristle when parents tell them what to do, whether it’s on this topic or any other. Still, they’ll hear it, and they’ll remember it, and you will have met your responsibility as a parent.
A Parent is More than a Friend
It’s a welcome transition when children reach emerging adulthood and get to the point where they and their parents can be more like friends than parent and child, treating each other like near-equals. But there are still times, even in emerging adulthood, when parents have to step into their role as parents, not friends.
This issue of drinking and driving is too important and too potentially lethal to ignore. Any parents who avoid speaking up about it because they don’t want to disrupt the cozy friendship and hear their child respond with a resentful “I know!” are doing their child no favors.
Being a good parent sometimes means being something more than a friend.