Palo Alto parents in denial about their teens? | March 12, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 12, 2010

Palo Alto parents in denial about their teens?

Annual student survey yields mixed picture on healthy behavior

by Christina Kenrick

Are Palo Alto parents in denial about what really goes on in their teenagers' lives?

Survey results suggest that the answer is yes — and no.

Most parents know their own children quite well but overestimate the involvement of other teens in alcohol and drug abuse, according to the latest results released this week of Palo Alto's annual Reality Check Survey.

Teenagers share similar misperceptions.

Most of them lead sensible lives but vastly overestimate the risky behavior of their peers, the survey stated.

At the same time, a significant minority — about 19 percent — of high school students are regular alcohol users, admitting to drinking at least monthly. Between 9 and 10 percent of students say they drink weekly or daily.

The results of the annual Reality Check — a comprehensive web-based survey of some 5,700 Palo Alto middle- and high-school students — have been remarkably consistent over six years, said Becky Beacom, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation health-education manager who has been involved since the early days of the project.

"People are underestimating the health, the kindness, the connectedness, the good parenting in this community," Beacom said.

"Does that sound like Pollyanna? It's just the truth."

On the other hand, she cautioned, real concerns remain about the minority of Palo Alto teens who are serious abusers of alcohol and drugs.

"The gap between what's really happening and what kids think is happening is very important," she said.

"It affects abstainers, who think that they're the odd ones out.

"And for the kids who are using (drugs and alcohol) and in need of help, they often delay getting help because they're comforted with the (false) idea that they're in good company.

The annual survey was begun when then-Superintendent Mary Frances Callan and then-Police Chief Pat Dwyer grew "concerned about the number of students they were seeing with drug and alcohol problems," Beacom told a gathering of some 30 parents in the Gunn High School Library Tuesday night.

"They also were concerned that young people were starting at an earlier age, but they really had no data."

The survey is managed by the Palo Alto Drug and Alcohol Community Collaborative, representing a host of community agencies including the school district, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, the police department, the PTA and the YMCA.

People were surprised — and many disbelieving — in the early days of the survey, when data showed that a solid majority of teens do not use alcohol, Beacom said.

But careful data screening and consistent results over six years suggest that the survey data is accurate, she said.

Because people's behavior is strongly influenced by what they believe their peers to be doing, it's important for parents and teens to get beyond stereotypes of "typical" teenage behavior and understand the reality, she said.

"If everybody thinks that everybody else is doing it, there's no amount of education or 'just say no' that's going to be effective," she said.

In the case of marijuana use, for example, 75 percent of Paly and Gunn students say they never use it, yet most students assumed their peers were much heavier users.

Forty-four percent of students said they had never been to a party where alcohol was present and, of those who had, 23 percent said they themselves did not drink.

On the other hand, about 10 percent of high school students said they would typically take five or more drinks at such a party.

"You have to keep both sides in mind," she said.

Survey data also consistently show that middle school students vastly overestimate the level of drinking and drug use that occurs among Palo Alto's high school students.

On the whole, teenagers aren't "boozing, binge-drinking party animals" in Palo Alto, Beacom said.

"It's extreme behavior, and it is not normal."

Beacom urged parents to trust their own instincts and to network as much as possible with other parents when grappling with difficult questions.

"The stereotype of Palo Alto parents is that they're in denial," she said.

"Some of that is true, but the other part of that same truth is that parents often know when something is wrong, and they're told, 'It's normal.'

"And then they start questioning their own good judgment and knowledge."

Staff Writer Christina Kenrick can be reached at


Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 12, 2010 at 8:47 am

These surveys are really difficult for teens and parents to answer.

Saying that a teen is drinking once a week can mean that a 16 year old has a small glass of wine once a week with their parents at a family dinner, or it could mean that a teen is taking a beer from the parents' personal supply without permission. The former scenario does not indicate any type of alcohol problem whereas the second scenario shows more of a problem with stealing and deceit rather than alcohol, is the teen taking money from the parents' wallets too?

And most parents are not really savvy with what is going on in the lives of other teens who are not the friends of their own teens. Most of what is known is anecdotal at best.

And as for middle schoolers not knowing what goes on with high schoolers, well that is understandable unless they happen to have an older sibling. They will obviously give a warped view which is probably more from tv shows rather than their experience.

These surveys are worthwhile, but more thought needs to go into these questions and when a yes answer is given a subsequent question about the source of the alcohol or who they are with when drinking it would be sensible.

Our own teens have all tasted alcohol and would say that they have drunk alcohol, but that would not show accurately in this survey. We have also taken them out of the country where 18 year olds are allowed to drink and our 18 year old has been out with cousins doing so with our consent - all perfectly legal. Once again, this survey does not show that.

Surveys can show anything the survey writers want. The well written ones give a much better overall view.

Posted by alcoholic, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 12, 2010 at 9:30 am

"10 percent of high school students said they would typically take five or more drinks at such a party"

That sounds very specific too me. Most adults that I know do not drink that much.

Parents and teachers are right to worry about student suicides, but booze and drugs kill many more students than trains. We need to tackle this problem as well.

Posted by teacher, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 12, 2010 at 9:35 am

The directions on the survey, which are read out loud to every class taking the survey (as well as with each question asked about # of drinks) says:

In this survey the meaning of “alcohol use” is defined as drinking more than a few sips at a religious or family celebration.

Posted by alcoholic, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 12, 2010 at 9:51 am

I am not concerned about "a few sips at a religious or family celebration". However the statement about heavy drinking at parties is very troubling.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

Heck, kids who drink probably do so because of parental interference. I imagine they intuitively sense how they will do or have a preconceived notion of where they are in our society that they do not like or did not choose or have any input into.

Society and parents are the problem, not the kids. The kids are being "natural", which in some of their cases is "destructive" and a shame, and especially a shame because the solution to try to change them and not the messed up society we have.

Most of these kids grow out of whatever is bothering them, but society never changes, and we do not understand it, no one chose it, it runs over a lot of people. Since we only reward a certain kind of person, why not try to expand the type of people we'll "accept" and not have it be always the self-centered psychopathic go-getter at any expense that maintains the phoniest image?

Posted by rem, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 12, 2010 at 10:58 am

There was a great TV "promo" years ago::::

"IT's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your children are???"

Posted by Morris, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 12, 2010 at 11:02 am

> These surveys are really difficult for teens and parents to answer.

If this is true, then the point needs to be referred to the survey makers. Since sacramental wine is a part of many religious services, it should be clearly excluded. Some people add brandy, rum and other spirits to their foods (both pastry and cooked). These situations should be excluded via question design, or specific instructions excluding this consumption of alcohol.

> "10 percent of high school students said they would typically
> take five or more drinks at such a party"

This should be troubling to us all. This should be illegal for parents/homeowners to allow these sorts of activities in their homes, and it should be illegal for minors to consume alcohol in private homes not associated with a "religious practice", and then in the most prudent moderation.

Maybe it's time for the Palo Alto police to begin to raid some of these parties, and start arresting violators.

Posted by rem #2, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

rem - funny. Where I grew up in Western NY, that announcement preceded the 11pm news... I can still hear it. My brother & I would look at each other and ask, "Do we know where our parents are?"

Posted by Linda, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 12, 2010 at 12:15 pm

To those na sayers, think back to just a few years ago when the young man, a GUNN student, had a drinking problem and a car. His friends knew about it and even a few parents. No one spoke up about the young man and what they should have done until the day they spoke at his eulogy. This young man died under the enfluence in a car accident.
We all need to get our heads out of the sand. Also, it was not to long ago a Standford Professor and Middle school teacher allowed kids to drink at a party at their home, because they thought it was better than having the kids off in the streets drinking. This led to rules put in place in Palo Alto about under age drinking at the hand of an adult. MMMMMMMMM

We need to talk to our kids!!!!! If we can't talk to them find some one who you can trust to befriend your child and hopefully give them good advice.
Use every tool available, because like it or not the kids are drinking.

Posted by mother, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 12, 2010 at 2:36 pm

As a parent of a Gunn student who tells me there are alot of teens that come high to school, and all the students know it, she says nobody will say anything.She thinks it is lame and the teens are bored! I guess because its soooooo great? Drugs and alcohol are very much used at Gunn!! My Daughter told me some of her Senior friends told her that they cannot wait to get to Collage so they can party like Crazy! Parents are very much in denial about it especially
when their teens are straight A students! That also goes for all the other High schools! REHAB!!! education is a prevlidge, but the teens now I guess feel this entitledment??? enjoy what you have for free! Because when these teens grow up, hope you can get a JOB and pay your own bills. And some of these parents should never had kids! I guess since they have no sence of boundraries!!!!

Posted by Arvada, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 12, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I find it interesting that no one is talking about the high incidence of suicide among gay and lesbian teens...who are often bullied, ostracized and ridiculed by their peers and rejected by their parents and families. Is this another form of denial?

Posted by concerned, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 12, 2010 at 3:50 pm

As a landlord I've witnessed incidents such as these involving kids and drugs. Many of these kids are barely 13 years old! Many of the times the kids will bring their friends home after school and drink and do drugs while their parents are away at work. These actions can lead to other bad actions. Parents need to monitor what their kids are doing now more than ever! with the advance of technology access to drugs, alcohool and pornography is all at their fingertips! Parents too often times forget that they influence their kids lives a lot more than they think. So why should others be left to do the influencing?

Posted by john c, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm

denial or ignorant??

Posted by In the Know, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2010 at 6:54 pm's a well-known fact that alcoholism is a disease and it seems to be a disease that is genetically handed down from generation to generation. It's also known that at least 10% (I am thinking it is more) of any population has this inherited allergy to alcohol. This means that at least 10% of parents reading this are alcoholic or addicted to other drugs (or possibly cross-addicted....that is, addicted to more than one substance or behavior). The real crux of the matter is that denial is rampant in all people who are it alcohol or other drugs or sex or porn or gambling or tweeting or whatever it may be. People want to mask their feelings or change the way they feel constantly (yes, even in Perfect Palo Alto where many parents feel they need to fit that perfect mold and are in perfect denial of their short comings). This is not to say that there are not tons of wonderful, attentive and unmedicated parents out there who are modeling good behavior to their children. The parents who are drinking or using other drugs to get by should know that their children are aware of what they are doing. Many highschoolers steal drugs from their parent's medicine cabinets as well. It's high time (no pun intended) that we all take a look at what we are doing and get help for ourselves as well as our kids. There are many AA meetings specifically for young people and even young people's AA groups. A look into the AA website will help you pinpoint some of these meetings. There is a meeting at the First Congregational Church in the Youth Room (back of the church) on Thursdays between 4 and 5:00. Young people even have special events where they can go have clean and sober fun (actually these events are more fun than the parties that some Palo Alto parents host where they allow use of alcohol and drugs......I had a neighbor who did this regularly). So, let's take a look at the parents from the standpoint of role modeling. If you are a parent reading this and think you may have a problem with alcohol or other drugs you can get help. All it takes is a phone call or a look at a recovery website. You can change your own life or the life of your child for the better by taking action.

Posted by 00, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 12, 2010 at 7:52 pm

these surveys are worthless

Posted by Realist, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 12, 2010 at 8:17 pm

My daughter drank a good bit in high school. Now she's in college and watching while all the "good girls" and "good boys" from high school are drinking themselves into stupors in college! Meanwhile she spends quiet nights studying or hanging out with her boyfriend (sober). It's all relative, and folks we live in a drinking culture. You are living in a dream world if you think kids can grow up around parents who are slugging down wine every night, and the kids aren't going to go through a drinking phase?

Posted by denia, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 13, 2010 at 2:25 pm

denial isnt a river in egypt, it's an american social disease.

Posted by Student, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2010 at 11:50 am

Check out this story from Palo Alto HIgh School that talks about cigarette vs. marijuana use in Paly students: Web Link
The survey results are pretty close to what the reality check survey says.

Posted by Ex-student, a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Thanks Student for the Paly link. An interesting story about student parties these days. I remember going to parties in South Palo Alto 35 years ago, and it was...exactly the same! No wonder these surveys are staying consistent!

Posted by vulnerable brains and marijuana should not mix, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2010 at 7:24 pm


very interesting link about cigarette vs. marijuana use in Paly students

I'm not sure if parents are in denial about their teens but am almost 100% sure that everyone is in denial about how risky marijuana is, from a cognitive and psychiatric point of view

the book Marijuana and Madness explores its impact on mental health,

especially for vulnerable brains, which probably includes all High School students, it's shocking there isn't enough connecting the dots, on this seemingly acceptable drug

the article and most comparisons focus on how harmful cigarettes are for your lungs, but fail to mention of the impact of marijuana on the brain, two entirely different organs, two very different risks, both deadly, just in different ways

Posted by Alex, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 16, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Good lord, it all comes down to the puritanical stigma put on alcohol by society. Kids will drink, no matter how much you wish that they wouldn't. Teach your kids to be responsible with alcohol, and not that it is the devil in a bottle.

Posted by vulnerable brains and marijuana should not mix, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2010 at 10:26 am

I agree with not being puritanical about alcohol but "responsible" drinking is harder for certain kids.

If I have a teen that is at risk for mental health issues, I would be more concerned about marijuana use. Smoking pot before 16 is associated with a higher risk of psychotic disorders and is worse the more and longer it's used, includes depression.

Not sure how the parents are dealing with this particular stat that 68% of HS students find marijuana acceptable but since MJ can and does lead to psychotic episodes, especially the younger the brain is when using it, and the more or longer it's used, this proves parents are in denial or at least ignorant.

Posted by In The Know, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Alex: A teens brain is not considered mature until age 25. Alcohol can do damage to the brain if consumed by teens or young people. This isn't a question of putting a puritanical stigma on the substance. Would you recommend that teens regularly consume other substances that can do permanent damage to their brains? Taking responsibility in the area of alcohol for teens would be saying no when offered.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 17, 2010 at 5:28 pm

What is more irresponsible? A society which has a legal drinking age of 21, when most 21 year olds are away from home and away from parental supervision at the time when they can first legally buy and imbibe alcohol, or a society where parents can legally introduce alcohol to their teens at their discretion. True, teens get alcohol and are irresponsible with it, but it is illegal for them to do so. Parents are not legally able to teach moderation, so any drinking has to be done behind the parents' back which prevents any type of parent involvement. A much better system needs to be put in place.

Posted by Alex, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 14, 2010 at 8:43 pm

@In The Know

Then why does the US have one of the highest drinking ages in the world? In Europe, you would have a tough time finding a nation where drinking isn't acceptable. The brains of children may still be developing, but you forget: just saying no is unrealistic. Responsibility lies in knowing your limits. If we took the stigma that you put on alcohol away, we might take away the temptation of the 'forbidden fruit' that drinking is now.

Oh, and by the way, alcohol isn't crack. Stop being so dramatic.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields


Registration now open!

Registration is now open for the 33rd annual Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run and Walk. This family-friendly event which benefits local nonprofits serving kids and families will take place on Friday, Oct. 6 at the Palo Alto Baylands.

Register Here