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Is providing ‘fake’ alcohol a good way of trying to help your teen deal with ‘peer pressure’ at parties?

Over the years I’ve been contacted by a number of parents who have wanted my opinion on providing ‘fake’ alcohol to teens attending  parties or gatherings. Last week I received the following Facebook message from a mother asking the same question:

“I am just wondering what your view is on the idea of teens (15-year-old) ‘pretending’ to drink at a party by filling vodka cruiser bottles with cordial or soft drink?”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to assist a 15-year-old to ‘fit in’ by providing fake alcohol? The sad thing is that this ‘peer pressure’ (although I believe it is far more likely to be a much more insidious ‘social pressure’) is also a reality for many Australian adults. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t drink alcohol and I can think of many times over the years where it was just easier for me to grab a glass or bottle and walk around a party or other event and pretend that I was drinking. Having to deal with the party’s host or people serving alcohol constantly asking me why I wasn’t drinking can get really annoying. I’m sure some of the drinkers reading this will say, well why didn’t you just grab a soft drink or water? Without doubt, there are many situations where that works but I can tell you that there are others (e.g., a wedding) where holding a mineral water (particularly when you are about to toast the happy couple) is seen as totally unacceptable by some! At the last wedding I went to, when I declined the offer of a glass of champagne from a waiter and asked for a mineral water instead, I remember a guy looking at me and saying loudly “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink alcohol!” When I told a radio ‘shock jock’ who was interviewing me that I didn’t drink alcohol (after he had specifically asked me a question about my drinking behaviour), he told me that that was “un-Australian”! I have no idea what that really means but it’s kind of sad …

So in the context of that culture where drinking is perceived as the ‘norm’, how do our young people cope with that social pressure? If you look at the evidence there are certainly growing numbers of teens who are choosing not to drink alcohol. As I’ve said before, I believe that one of the reasons for this is that many drinking groups now actually ’embrace’ non-drinkers. They see them as valuable members of their social group. These are the guys or girls that look after the drinkers and become the designated drivers and, as a result, being identified as the non-drinker in the group does not necessarily mean the ‘social suicide’ that it once did. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and there are certainly groups of young people who drink alcohol who reject those who don’t … I am sure this happens amongst both genders, but in my experience it is the girls who are likely to face the greatest pressure here …

When I wrote my book Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs, I interviewed a mother who was really struggling to help her daughter maintain her position in a friendship group. The following story didn’t end up making the final cut of the book but it perfectly illustrates the challenges that some young people face in this area:

An elite athlete, Alison was in Year 12 and represented Australia in her chosen sport. She was on the way to gaining a place at the AIS and had made the decision not to drink alcohol from an early age, prepared to sacrifice partying to make sure she achieved her dream. She had a great group of friends that she had had since primary school but recently each of them had started to drink alcohol when they went to parties. Even so, there were no problems as they all understood why she didn’t drink and totally supported her decision.

Unfortunately, their attitude started to change at the beginning of Year 12 with Alison starting to get great pressure to join in with the drinking behaviour. In fact, according to Beth (her mother), she was going to lose her friends if she didn’t agree to partake … Beth was desperate to try to find a way to help her deal with the pressure she was getting to conform and keep her friends but, at the same time, not compromise her values …

Beth finally came up with the idea of buying bottles of premixed spirits (e.g., Bacardi Breezers), emptying them out and then filling them with up with lemon squash. She would recap them (and even went to the extent of going to a factory to get them capped professionally!) and her daughter would take two of these to take to a party. According to Beth, the plan had worked and Alison was able to carry off the charade and keep her position in the social group.

I can remember having a long talk with Beth about the major issues she had with this strategy. She certainly didn’t feel comfortable doing it and she had a huge problem understanding why a group of so-called ‘friends’ (many of whom she knew well) would suddenly put this kind of pressure on her daughter. But knowing how important being accepted by your peer group was at this age, she was willing to do anything to help. She was also extremely worried about what would happen if her daughter was found out. What if someone else had a sip and found out that it wasn’t really alcohol? That was surely going to result in a far worse outcome – how would young women feel about a friend lying to them and bringing fake alcohol to a party? Interestingly, she told me that she had even experimented with a couple of spices (as well as Aromatic Bitters and even vinegar) to try and get a taste that could possibly resemble something similar to alcohol should a bottle fall into the wrong hands … I don’t think she had great success in that area!

So is providing fake alcohol a good strategy and are there any problems associated with assisting your teen in this way?

As I’ve already said, many non-drinking adults can think of a time when they have pretended to drink alcohol in social settings to help avoid annoying questions or comments or simply just ‘fit-in’. For many it can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works as well for teens. There are just too many things that can go wrong, particularly when they are very young (around that 15-year-old age).

Firstly, there are all the legal issues to consider. In almost every Australian state and territory (apart from SA), it is illegal for a parent to host a party at their home and allow other parents’ teens to drink alcohol on their property. The only way they can do it is if they get those teens’ parents to give them permission to do so … How do you handle that with fake alcohol? If a parent was hosting a ‘dry’ event and caught your child with the fake alcohol you had provided them, how does your teen deal with that and think of the position you’re putting the host parent when they’re totally unaware of what is really happening. Should you be telling host parents that the alcohol your child is drinking is fake? If your child is refused entry to a party by security I’m sure you’re not going to be happy about it, but how would they know better? Even worse, if your 15-year-old was caught with alcohol in a public place, they could be charged and given an alcohol caution. How does your child cope with a complex situation like that? Do they just sit back and accept the charge or do they ‘out’ themselves in front of their friends and tell the truth?

Beth’s concern about being caught out by their peers is another real issue here … It only takes one person to realize that your teen is lying about what they’re drinking and it can get really ugly, very quickly! If your child has a social group where drinking is that important that they feel they need to take fake alcohol to fit in, I can’t imagine the reaction they would get if their lie was caught out … To be quite honest, I don’t think it’s worth the risk!

But most importantly, I believe you really run the risk of normalising alcohol in their social group even more if you utilise this strategy. Assisting your teen to ‘cave in’ and fit the supposed norm may seem like a good idea in the short-term when they are really struggling in this area, but it is not going to help them in the long-run. What could be far more useful is helping your teen come up with a realistic ‘out’ that assists them to say ‘no’ to drinking alcohol but ensures they still ‘save face’. I’ve written about ‘outs’ before but here are a few that I have picked up from teens over the years that have actually worked:

  • “I am allergic to alcohol”
  • “The medication I’m on at the moment doesn’t mix well with alcohol”
  • “Dad found out I was drinking last weekend and I’ll be grounded if I get caught again”
  • “Mum’s picking me up and she always checks my breath when I get in the car”

So how did I respond to the Facebook message I received last week? Well, it’s short and sweet and was as follows:

“I certainly do know of teens (and their parents) who use this strategy, although I have to say, I don’t hear about it nearly as much as I once did (increasingly non-drinkers are becoming more socially acceptable and so the pressure seems to be lifting for many, but certainly not all, young people). My worry about doing it with such young teens (15-year-olds) is that it normalises alcohol in their social group even more … that said, if it works for your family and your teen is under such great pressure that you need to resort to this, well, anything to keep them safer …

I also told her that I’d be writing a blog entry on the topic … Most importantly though, it doesn’t really matter what I (or anybody else for that matter) believes, as I said, if a strategy works for you and your family, well, anything to keep them safer! Just remember to consider all your options and not just a short-term fix, particularly at the age of 15. You have years of adolescence ahead, a long-term strategy may take a little more thought and effort but it is likely to be far more effective …

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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