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Is It All or Nothing

Author: Kathleen Nelson-Simley Posted: Thursday - December 5, 2019

I am thinking about a mother I met who was so distraught when she heard her 18 year old son had drank alcohol for the first time the night before. She was disappointed in him. Her expectation of him was to not drink alcohol until the legal age of 21. He fell short of her expectation. She believed her prevention efforts as a parent failed.

This mother’s experience reminds me of how we sometimes measure our success in prevention. If our kids drink alcohol before age 21, we see it as a failure. If our kids wait until the age of 21 or later, we see it as success. This “all or nothing” mentality with substance use prevention is common.

But, is our success in prevention really “all or nothing?”

Research shows that kids who start drinking alcohol before age 15 are 5 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after the legal age of 21.

But what happens to kids who begin to drink alcohol between the ages of 15 to 21? There’s this middle ground between the two extremes – the highest risk period (before age 15) and the lowest risk period (age 21 and older) - we don’t always think about.

The research shows the risk for problems drops slightly every year, after the age of 15, a child waits to begin using alcohol. That means a 16 year old is at a little less risk for problems than someone who is 15 years old or younger. If the 16 year old waits another year before using alcohol, or until the age of 17, their risk drops a bit more. If the teenager waits until the age of 18 to begin to drink, their risk drops again. Risk drops about 4-5% each year between the ages of 15 to 21. There is risk every year – just less risk.

The drop in risk every year, between the ages of 15 to 21, can add up to be significant the more years a kid waits to begin using alcohol. It’s why research has found that the later the age someone is when they begin to use alcohol the less likelihood they will experience problems related to use later.

So, let’s go back to the mother who thought her prevention efforts as a parent failed with her son. Was it a complete failure as she thought?


If she had not done what she did as a parent, her son could have used alcohol at an age much earlier than 18. I reminded her of all her son gained by waiting until age 18 to have his first experience with alcohol compared to his peers who may have started drinking before the age of 15. He got additional years to experience academic success and earn scholarships for college, build positive relationships with his family and friends, learn on-the-job skills through his employment and develop physically, mentally, and emotionally in healthy ways. I congratulated her on what she had accomplished with her son.

The success of prevention shouldn’t always be measured by what we didn’t accomplish. Instead, look for what did get accomplished. Know that what you do really does make a difference one year at a time. And, the more years you can do it, the better off your kids will be.

So, is our success in prevention really “all or nothing?” Absolutely not! There’s always a middle ground to celebrate if you look for it.