Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Teen Drinking Is A Big Problem

May 1, 2000

As witnessed by the following recent news stories, rural communities have more than their share of teens at risk for drinking. I have deleted the names of people and the communities.

"High School Principal has suspended 22 students from extra-curricular activities so far this year, including three repeat offenders, bringing the total number of violations to 25 enough to cause major concern in a town of 1,500 people."

"Police break up hotel party involving students (from a rural community). Police arrested one 18-year-old and referred 11 youths to juvenile court for alcohol violations after responding to a loud-party complaint at the Holiday Inn about 3:30 a.m. Monday."

"The Sheriff’s Department issued citations to 18 youths Saturday night for consuming alcohol at a party held at a farmstead."

These accounts are backed up by statistics showing that rural teens, statewide and nationally, are having a greater drinking problem than their urban counterparts. This drinking takes place despite such protective factors in rural communities as watchful and caring adults in the community, the support and connection of extended family and having other mentoring adults outside of the family.

  • In spite of these protective factors, rural youth still have greater drinking and drug problems than their urban counterparts. How can that be?
  • Lack of alternatives. The "nothing to do" atmosphere in smaller communities is a factor. It takes great effort by parents and the community to provide organized activities and entertainment when these resources aren’t available. Parental attitudes of helplessness in the face of pervasive rural teen drinking add to the problem.
  • Tolerance. Teen drinking is perceived as normal and not a problem compared to marijuana, tobacco and other forms of experimentation. Parental permissiveness and the lack of discipline or follow through contribute to this problem.
  • Lack of expectations. Some rural teens have a belief that they will be OK in life regardless of what they do. Alcohol and drug use takes the edge off their motivation, encourages anti-education attitudes, and adoption of an entertainment first mentality.

Teens make poorer choices and become less future oriented and greater risk-takers when they put "partying" as the "end-all" of their week. Teens from economically viable family farms and ranches may feel their futures are secure and that this is their time to raise hell and have fun. A lack of expectations in the school may also be a contributing factor.

  • Adult drinking. Problems with teen drinking are greatest in communities where adult drinking is common and a general attitude of permissiveness prevails to protect "adult" drinking. Teens use drinking to mimic or try out
  • Intense peer pressures. The need for acceptance and approval during these conforming years is a powerful incentive for going along with the crowd. The drinking or non-drinking behavior of the most popular kids has a great deal of influence on the rest of the class. Also, rural teens do not have many choices for friends so they may not have an alternative non-drinking crowd to affiliate with.
  • The mixing of age groups. If an older sibling drinks, the likelihood of a younger sibling drinking increases with the association with him or her and their friends. In smaller communities, the amount of social activities with older siblings increases dramatically compared to urban schools where friendships and social activities are class and age-based.
  • The influence of young adults. Older single young adults - particularly males, ages 18 to 24 - who stay in the community after high school, stay socially involved with high school students. They provide the booze and the parties for high school students in order to have a social life for themselves.
  • Community judgment. Youth from troubled or poor families who are stigmatized by their peers and by the community might act out their anger at being rejected or hassled. They become the thing the town fears - a self-fulfilling prophecy. The influx of "outsider" poor families into rural communities looking for cheap housing may add to this group.

What can rural communities do?

  • Parents need to be strong. How parents handle either non-drinking or responsible adult drinking with a zero tolerance for underage drinking makes a big difference. Strong family influence, attachments, monitoring and standards help keep teens in line. Parents need to teach values, make limits, and give meaningful consequences for underage alcohol. They need to communicate and be supportive with each other.
  • Provide extracurricular activities. Youth need success experiences in extra-curricular activities through the school, church, or community give them a sense of belonging, structured time, teamwork, goal setting, etc. Having other skills - athletics, music, art, drama, - can give a child a basis for feeling good about themselves independent of their peer group acceptance. It can also be meaningful in getting peer acceptance in the first place.
  • Work toward greater school success situations. Competence and a sense of accomplishment are vital to self-esteem. Youths with a sense of self-esteem and a vision for their future make better choices. Learning should be exciting. High risk teens need tutoring or mentoring with concerned and caring adult role models.
  • Develop a cooperative community attitude. An atmosphere of cooperation needs to exist between law enforcement, courts, schools and parents regarding consequences for violations of rules and laws.