Throughout most of school, Carmen was a bright and active student who got straight As and played soccer and basketball. She had a good group of friends and wanted to become a lawyer.
She had her first drink of alcohol at age 12, while sleeping over at a friend’s house. She and her friend found the "hidden" liquor cabinet, and they excitedly sipped scotch while telling each other secrets and trying not to laugh so loud as to wake her friend’s parents.
When she was 14, she attended a house party with some older kids at the end of the school year. Some kids arrived drunk and others brought alcohol with them. Carmen, just finishing her freshman year and feeling privileged to be at a party with older students, wanted to be seen casually drinking, too. She drank enough to feel buzzed, so she could feel less anxious among the older kids.
She doesn’t remember her father ever specifically telling her not to drink, only to "be careful when hanging out" and that "Kids get a little wild. You’re smarter than that." He was much clearer in expressing worry about dating, sex, and drugs.
As she got older, her dad started working longer hours and she increasingly found herself returning to an empty home after school or practice. After finishing homework, she’d occasionally reward herself with a drink from her father’s liquor cabinet. Also, more and more, she hung out with her "drinking buddies," and soon she was getting drunk every Friday and Saturday night. As she missed games and practices, her longtime friends on the soccer and basketball teams began to resent her increasing apathy and aloofness.
With SATs and college applications on the horizon, Carmen felt more stressed than ever as she tried to "balance it all." During the few moments of rest she did find, anxiety about her future meant she still couldn’t relax unless she had a couple drinks. She applied to a number of prestigious colleges, including a few Ivy League schools. Fearing she’d be too embarrassed to attend a back-up school, she didn’t apply to any. The stress drove her even further into a vicious cycle of drinking.
One day when she was 17, she was caught showing up to school late and drunk. She found herself immediately suspended and waiting in the principal’s office while her dad left work early to pick her up.
On the ride home, her dad was shocked. He began asking her about what happened, and though he wanted to scold her for some of her decisions, he bit his tongue, listened, and gently encouraged her to talk about what she had been going through. They had their first real talk about alcohol and he learned just how much she had been drinking.
She didn’t get into any of the colleges she applied to. As the disappointing letters came in, she wanted to drink, but instead spoke about it with her dad and the school counselor. With her life returning to equilibrium, she applied to a few less-prestigious schools and was accepted. She matriculated for a winter semester.
She’s now in her junior year of college. She’s been a member of the Students in Recovery group since her freshman year. Through the Students in Recovery group she met other students who had struggled with alcohol and who were looking for ways to be social without having to drink. She doesn’t shy away from talking about her problems with alcohol.
Greg and his wife, Nikki, have two children: a college junior named Carmen and an eighth-grade son named Sean. During Carmen’s high school years, he and his wife weren’t around very much. They were working longer hours to save up for her college tuition, and they were also busy with Sean. They felt that Carmen could take good care of herself, so they were shocked when they got a call from the principal saying she had been suspended for showing up to school drunk.
Having sometimes described himself as a bit of a "screw-up" in his school days, Greg felt a bit inadequate as the parent of such a bright child and occasionally thought "getting out of her way" was probably for the best. Since Carmen’s episode with drinking, he’s tried to be much clearer with her—and with Sean—about his expectations. He feels guilty, suspecting that his too-distant approach and leniency may have contributed to Carmen’s drinking problem, but he has renewed his determination to be there for his children when they need him.
Thinking back, he realized that before Carmen got caught, he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn she was drinking every once in a while. He had even sort of expected it, since that’s what he had done at her age. But he had not expected to her to drink as often or as much as she did. Nor did he expect her to be drinking in response to the stress of school, of sports, and of living up to what she perceived as his expectations.
Since Carmen came clean about her alcohol dependency, he’s attended some of his daughter’s counseling sessions and also a few meetings of a support group for family members of alcoholics. He heard a lot of horror stories that started out similar to his daughter’s story, and now he realizes just how much worse it could have been for his family. As he and Carmen worked through her problems, he spoke with experts on underage drinking and learned effective techniques for talking with children about alcohol.
Alicia is his neighbor of more than 15 years. Their sons have gone to school together and been friends since they were in second grade. Alicia and Greg often talk about what’s going on in the school and what their boys are up to.
Age: late 30s
Alicia is a web developer and devoted mother of her only child, Michael. Michael’s dad, Vincent, is in the military and currently deployed, so Alicia has to work twice as hard to be there for Michael. In her husband’s absence, she turns to family, friends, and other parents for support. Her neighbors Greg and Nikki have been especially good friends and confidants over the years.
She thought she’d have less to worry about as Michael grew older, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Middle school brought a whole new host of concerns—does he have enough friends? Is he getting enough exercise? Is he playing too many video games? Is he growing up too fast? She has her hands full balancing work, taking him to trumpet lessons, helping him with homework, and cheering him on at his baseball games.
Alcohol didn’t even rank in her top five concerns… that is, until last weekend, when she heard about a house party getting raided by the police. When the police arrived on the scene, tipped off by a noise complaint from the neighbors, they found teenagers working their way through a keg of beer and several bottles of liquor. And Alicia was shocked to hear through the grapevine that many of the tipsy teens were eighth-graders. Could some of Michael’s friends be drinking? Could Michael be drinking?
No, that can’t be right. Michael’s a good kid, quiet, does well in school. But that would explain some troubling things she’s been noticing. She’s always had a close relationship with him, but lately he’s been distancing himself from her; and he’s been hanging out with some older kids.
Even if these warning signs are harmless, the party was a sharp reminder of how easily things could go wrong. Should she say something to Michael? What would she say and how would she start the conversation?
Michael is a bright and curious eighth-grader. He plays trumpet in the school band, and in the past few years he’s been having a lot of fun playing baseball, too. At home, he likes to watch TV and play video games.
Michael hasn’t tried alcohol. He does know a few other kids in his grade who have, though, and he hears about drinking going on at parties. He heard about a big party last weekend that got raided by the police. He’s not sure what to think about it all. Some of the kids who were drinking seemed like "cool" kids—do they know something he doesn’t? He doesn’t want to get in trouble or anything, but… there were a lot of eighth-graders there, and everyone at school is talking about this party. Is this just what you’re supposed to do when you’re growing up?
He wishes he’d get invited to a big party. He isn’t sure if he would drink, but he definitely wouldn’t want to seem uncool in front of the other kids. He doesn’t want to talk about it with his mother because she might disapprove of the kids he wants to befriend, or she might even say something to one of their parents.
Michael has already had one chance to drink alcohol. His friend Leo has been talking about drinking lately, and last time Michael went over to his house, Leo suggested they raid his dad’s liquor cabinet. Michael felt uncomfortable, but he couldn’t come up with a good excuse not to drink. If Leo had pressed him, he’s not sure how he would have handled the situation. He vaguely knows he shouldn’t drink, but doesn’t know what he’ll do next time he gets the offer. Maybe Leo’s right and it will be fun. Or maybe Michael’s health teacher is right and alcohol is very bad for you. Without a strong opinion of his own, Michael could go either way....