I’m not going to link to every reported instance of college or high school partying getting out of hand. Nor am I going to link to the number of emergency room visits that occur every weekend due to alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses; nor every instance of campus sexual abuse. In almost every adolescent community a brilliant and talented student has to be rushed to the hospital each weekend. Or a young woman comes to my office feeling confused and violated by an unwanted sexual experience that arose out of too much alcohol, or having been “roofied.” Pre-gaming and tailgate parties occur openly in our culture. Americans abroad are known for their wild partying.
Recently a private university sent twelve kids to the hospital, two critically ill due to the effects of bad “molly.” The four student dealers were among the school’s brightest students. I’m not going to link to this particular incident or any other because it is too easy to blame individual students or the institutions or the families.
Let’s be clear: I am not advocating prohibition or demonizing the responsible use of drugs and alcohol.
Rather, I’m suggesting that along with a national conversation about campus sexual abuse, it’s also time for a national conversation about how getting wasted has become commonplace for kids as young as thirteen and fourteen. Sexual and alcohol abuse are, after all, related events. Is it time to start setting some limits on the youthful narcissism and entitlement that makes excessive alcohol use and hook-up sexuality more rewarding than the development of good character? In ways no one intends, do we not reinforce adolescent substance misuse? Do we cultivate the culture of getting wasted over the development of sober social skills? Consider what I have observed in my work as a psychologist:
1. Parent don’t want to set limits on their kids’ partying behavior. I have heard some proclaim that they want their kids to have their first experiences blacking out before going to college. Some feel hypocritical because they used drugs and alcohol as kids and don’t want to tell their kids not to do what they did when they were young. Many parents serve alcohol and permit the smoking of weed in the home because they would rather the kids do it under their supervision rather than experimenting in less safe environments. Parents routinely ignore the pleadings of high school administrators to neither sponsor nor send their kids to homecoming events and other large drinking parties.
2. Some of the nation’s best colleges make acceptance decisions based on external accomplishments that can easily hide social immaturity and under-developed values. I have worked with kids who are notorious drinkers, drug users, and sexually exploitative who have nonetheless gained admittance to some very fine schools because they look great on paper. The conflicts these kids feel about their dual identities often worsens their reliance on drugs, alcohol and sexuality in order to manage their identity confusion and social immaturity.
3. Some of the excessive behaviors can be more pronounced in students with high socioeconomic status.
4. Psychology, with its emphasis on the importance of adolescent rebellion, often perpetuates too much tolerance. When their are no rules against which to rebel, adolescents can easily fall into the destructive pit of their inexperience coupled with teenage bravado.
This needs to be a much longer post and a bigger discussion. For now I only want to emphasize that the kids getting in trouble with excessive drugs, alcohol and sexuality have grown up believing that such behavior is normal and expected. After all, Miley Cyrus – the former Hannah Montana – now sings the virtues of “molly”. Music and film glorify sophisticated alcohol and drug use, and sexuality becomes something like a female ownership of their own exploitation.
Young people need limits and guidance from the adults in their lives from an early age. If we don’t provide this to our kids, we share responsibility when they find themselves in the hospital, or the courtroom. Sadly, heartbreakingly, some of those kids lose their lives because of terrible accidents that no one predicted, anticipated or wanted.
The inopportune use of substances and inappropriate experimentation with abusive sexuality comes naturally to adolescents. Their lives shouldn’t be ruined nor opportunities denied because of youthful mistakes, especially when the adults in their lives have reinforced such behavior for as long as these kids can remember.
Adults who clearly say “NO”, “WAIT” or “STOP” won’t end youthful indiscretions. Those words however will set limits and provide boundaries for the gradual and safe introduction to the pleasures of alcohol, drugs and sexuality. They will also provide a solid developmental frame for the acquisition of the personal traits that build ethical citizens and strong societies.