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Why is the drinking age set at 21? This question is usually asked by the minor who wants to drink or is already drinking. In working with an adolescent population, I hear the litany of justifications that youth have for drinking underage and why they feel the laws are unjust. The problem is that they also share these thoughts with their parents, and often times the parents may accept one or more of these justifications as a reason to be lenient on the child’s behavior.
There are many important facts that lead to a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21. These facts should be considered by parents when talking with their child in order to avoid being coerced by their adolescent logic. I have explained 2 powerful facts below, in hopes that parents can use the information when talking about underage drinking.
1. It is true that there is a universal MLDA of 21 within all states. There was a time when each state had the power to set different age limits, however we found there to be more risk not less. From 1970 to 1975, there were several states that reduced the drinking age to 18, 19 or 20 years old. Because there were different MLDAs, there was an increase of teens crossing state lines in order to get alcohol which increased risk of drinking and driving and alcohol related fatal car accidents. During this period we also found an increase in school problems and violence such as rape. This ultimately resulted in Congress passing the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. States were given a financial incentive to change the age limit to 21, and eventually all states did meet that guideline.
2. It is also true that other countries do not all hold the same age limit. Some countries even have no legal regulations on consumption age. Many teens will report that other countries with more liberal views of drinking have less alcohol related problems. Their logic being that our country is “too uptight” and we should therefore normalize drinking like these cultures. However, statistics again show that these cultures have more, not less, alcohol related problems.
The simple answer to why the drinking age is 21 is because we have found it to be safer for all concerned. Teenagers my use rationalizations to justify their behavior but the bottom line is that safety has motivated the regulation. In order to ensure the safety of our youth, we need to advocate adherence to this age limit.
Dr. Shannon Hanrahan is dually licensed as a Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist. She is an expert in areas ranging from addiction and substance abuse to eating disorders and trauma. Dr. Shannon has been treating and counseling clients in Southern California for 15 years. She started her career working with severely emotionally disturbed youth and after gaining valuable experience and knowledge, she moved onto educating and supervising upcoming therapists.
Quote from Dr. Shannon: “I help people who feel they are stuck and therefore unable to reach their full potential in various areas of their life. I work with clients to address the issues that have them stuck while offering support and education about the behavior patterns they are engaging in that are no longer effective. I encourage clients to find the balance they need to live an authentic lifestyle.”