Teenage Drinking | Solving Youth Substance Abuse | restraint theory, individuation, overpopulation, cultural priorities and freewill


Quick summary: I will be offering a brief discussion on what some of the factors are which seem to be contributing to excessive teenage drinking in the United States. I will follow each proposal with a solution.


I will be proposing that we as a society are unintentionally (and intentionally) encouraging teenagers to abuse alcohol with our regulations, our enabling of a kid centric culture, our allocation of natural resources away from youth, our overstressed culture, our inconsistency and hypocrisy, our lacking of clearly investigated priorities, and our lacking sense of individual purpose.


Regulations and Restraint theory – Restraint theory proposed that restraint increases desire. This would mean that our rigidity surrounding the drinking age in our country might actually be increasing our youths desire to drink. At a certain degree, most of the population will succumb to their desires.


  • Suggested Solution – allow parents to make decisions which allow more flexibility surrounding learning how to drink responsibly.


Lack of regulation and normalizing – It is very hard to find a popular show or movie in which the “cool” teenagers are not depicted drinking alcohol. There are and have always been covert and overt efforts to market the appeal of drinking to the youth. Some studies have found that our anti-substance campaigns actually increase substance abuse… this is because the campaigns are essentially saying, “ don’t be normal… normal people do drugs and alcohol.” we unintentionally are suggesting that to ‘fit in’ and to ‘be normal’ you should use substances.


  • Suggested Solution – require people and companies to pay a ‘side effect fee’ for profiting off of practices which encourage alcohol abuse. Use the money collected to help fund extracurricular activities… the youth are potentially less likely to be drinking if they are climbing a mountain, playing soccer, learning a dance form, or painting a picture. Stop funding ‘anti’ campaigns and start funding solutions (such as parks and open space).


Entitlement and our kid-centric culture – we are one of the very few cultures in which the majority of the family decisions are based around the youth. Instead of the youth following the parents schedules (as is more common in European, Latin, Asian etc cultures), the parents often follow the schedules of the youth. We unintentionally raise children to believe they are the center of the universe… this creates a degree of entitlement which encourages youth to believe that they have the right to drink despite the sentiments of their elders. This is exaggerated with marketing efforts that intentionally focus their campaigns on encouraging kids to make their ‘own’ decisions (which are ironically to follow their suggestion to buy their product).


  • Suggested Solution –Promote a cultural shift in which we question the ethics of marketing directly at children. Encourage adults to find hobbies and activities for themselves that they can invite their children to. Encourage more recreation in which all ages can play together.


Individuation and rugged independence – we as a culture put an enormous amount of value on what we call independence… we are determined to prove that we as individuals and we as a country are independent and free to make our own decisions despite the desires of the collective. When a child becomes a teenager they have already had years of learning to over value independence… as they go through individuation they will therefore do everything in their power to prove that they are not dependant on anyone; they will therefore drink to prove their ability to make decision which are contrary to the collective’s expectations.


  • Suggested Solution – as a culture we can start to focus more on “we” and less on “I”. Perhaps it would be valuable to offer education in the school systems about social ecology and the dependence of all people on each other. In truth we are one of the most dependant cultures, (most of our citizens do not make their own shelter, find their own food, or gather their own water) we could increase consciousness of such.


Social Learning theory and hypocrisy – Kids will always do what we do more than they will do as we say. It is an unrealistic expectation to believe that our youth will not abuse alcohol if alcohol abuse continues to be glorified in this culture.


  • Suggested Solution – the solution is to walk the talk. If we want the youth to make healthy decision we as adults must start to make healthy decision in relation to family, substance use, health, wellness, and happiness etc.


Freewill – some studies are suggesting that telling a person to make a specific choice decreases their likelihood of making that choice. It is suggested that people want to prove their freewill above all else… this means that telling a child not to drink might encourage them to drink.


  • Suggested Solution – Address the issue of freewill with choice. Create a vast myriad of positive choices for youth to make so that they have a sense of control and freewill over their lives. For example they could choose whether they wanted to be a mountain climber, or fantasy gamer, or a dancer, or soccer player etc.


The ‘Drinking Age’ and symbolism – we make the statement that “drinking is for adults… you can not drink until you are an adult.” We all know that teenagers believe themselves to be adults… we are giving them a way to “prove their adulthood”… all they have to do is drink alcohol to prove to themselves that they have reached the developmental milestone of adulthood.


  • Suggested Solution – we could move our definition of adulthood away from age and towards quantifiable attributes… adulthood can be described as meeting developmental milestones as opposed to meeting a certain age. In short, a 15 year old could be considered an adult and a 45 year old could still be considered a kid. perhaps we could set up a society in which you earn responsibility instead of having it offered to you at an arbitrary age (there are many 30 year olds who are not yet responsible enough to be driving a car).


Our culture of stress– One of the reasons the adult population abuses alcohol is that alcohol provides consistent and fast stress relief. The youth experience the stress of our culture both directly and indirectly. Stress is experienced directly through the high expectations we place on them; these expectations rarely take into account the differing attributes of our youth (we have the same expectations for everyone despite individual differences… we have created a society in which only a limited range of skill sets can be used to achieve ‘success’ or relative security.) The youth also experience stress indirectly when they come into contact with the dramatically overworked, unhealthy and overstressed adult population. Drinking is very much a symptom of our lack of health and wellness.


  • Suggested Solution – the first part of this will be walking the talk. the stress of many parents is encouraging certain youth to self medicate with alcohol. Adults need to seek help for their own stress. We as a culture need to take a good look at our priorities and see what changes need to be made to bring health and wellness back into this nation. We have some of the most money and some of the most mental health, physical health, and relational concerns.


Priorities– we have created a society that seemed to forget to ask itself what it values… If you ask a person what they value they may say, ‘health, recreation, happiness, family, friends, and community,” but the reality is that none of these variables are actually given much attention… we as a society work too much (which affects all variables – family, friends, health etc), we are estranged from our families, we commute to much to be able to maintain a sense of community, we have limited places left for recreation, we argue over which narcissist is the best politician, we have ironically given up much of our freedom do to our die hard beliefs about not regulating exploiters based on our beliefs of ‘freedom’ (meaning we make our selves very susceptible to exploitation, which limits our freedom, because we claim that it is a freedom or a right for people to be able to exploit others), we eat poor quality food, we buy things we don’t really even want, we spend insufficient time outdoors, we are not getting enough exercise, and we spend our free time recovering from our hard lives… which usually involves drinking.  


  • Suggested Solution –put our money where our mouth is. lets look at what our shared values are and put resources towards those goals… we allow politicians to talk about controversial subjects which distract us from meeting solutions that we would all collaborate in achieving. this political game has to stop… it is time for us to start actually solving some real problems. If you are just stirring up people and creating division by pointing out endless problems you should not be allowed to be a politician (this could be quantified)… taking tax payer money without proposing reasonable, collaborative, dialectically informed, and rational solutions should be met with immediate dismissal. In short, we have the money to fix a lot of problems, but we are spending it on narcissists playing popularity contests instead of running our government (this is all sides… partisanship is an illusion… both parties are doing the same thing… creating division to get elected is not patriotic… it visibly hurts the country.)


Complete neglect of social skills and communication education – I did not learn anything about communication until I was in my postgraduate education. I believe that many youth are ill prepared to interact with their peers… adults and youth alike require the ‘inhibiting’ effects of alcohol to engage in communication.


  • Suggested Solution – experiential communication classes should be offered in our schools.


Overpopulation, infringing on open space, and lack of money spent of extracurricular activities and recreation – Many communities have limited access to any space for the youth to explore, exercise or otherwise keep themselves occupied. We have cut huge amounts of funding towards extracurricular activities (though we continue to spend money on reactive programs such as jails). If you are not the best athlete there are limited opportunities to engage in sports programs. If you are an artist there are not any programs available that don’t requite quite a bit of money. In short, I would suggest that the main reason that kids abuse alcohol is that they are terribly bored. What should the youth be doing instead? What is it that adults are doing instead?


  • Suggested Solution – lets start being pro-active… lets fund everything that will promote health in our country with greater resources than we fund our reactions to problems. If we have budget issues I would suggest that we take money from jails and such and put it into buying open space, funding art programs, creating parks, funding intramural sports, and simply giving the youth things to do to express themselves. Offer an alternative to drinking.


Do you agree or disagree?


What are your solutions?


I would love to hear your opinions.


If you allow yourself to be open and honest what would you say are the reasons that teens have to not drink alcohol… I am not asking for a list of potential consequences… what could they be doing instead? What percentage of the teens in this country have access to your solutions?

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.