Raising Teens Who Drink Responsibly Starts When They Are Young (Lives Depend On It)

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
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On a cold night in February, Evelyn Piazza received the call that no parent should ever receive: Her 19-year-old son was dead. Evelyn’s son, Timothy, a pledge at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State University, had participated in a pledging activity that involved heavy drinking the night before. On the night in question, cameras in the fraternity showed fraternity brothers not only encouraging underage drinking but also flagrant disregard for the very obviously intoxicated Piazza.

After several hours of participating in a drinking-based obstacle course, Piazza fell down a flight of stairs in the fraternity house. Piazza could be seen on cameras being dragged back upstairs by his fraternity brothers and placed on a couch, where he languished for 12 hours before any of his teenage friends and party goers realized he needed immediate medical attention.

Various fraternity pledges and brothers could be seen on camera slapping Piazza’s face, punching his stomach, and even pouring water on his face as he lay unconscious. In an effort to prevent Piazza from rolling over and choking on his vomit, his friends “backpacked” him — placed books in a backpack and placed it on his chest in an effort to hold him in place on the couch. What are friends for, right?

The timeline, as published in court documents and news outlets, is excruciating for any parent to read. Piazza was handed his first drink just after 9 p.m. and was visibly intoxicated just an hour and a half later. By all accounts, he was incapacitated from both his fall down the stairs and alcohol overconsumption. For 12 hours, he was intermittently abused, summarily ignored, and left to slowly drift further into an alcoholic coma before someone finally called emergency services.

It was 12 hours before the call to 911 was placed.

The call was 12 hours too late. Piazza died from complications related to his ordeal, and now eight of the fraternity brothers have been charged with manslaughter in Piazza’s death.

As I read this story incredulously, I couldn’t believe the alleged details. The more I read the timeline, the more I shook with rage at the boys and their callous behavior. How is it that a group of teenage boys could let another friend wallow in obvious trouble? Was it peer pressure? Was it fraternity culture? Yet another college student is dead, a victim of poor decisions and too much alcohol. It seems like stories like these leave us shaking our heads and raising our pitchforks far too often.

Are we failing our kids when it comes to alcohol education? More specifically, are we doing enough to make sure our kids are compassionate and caring? How and what are we supposed to do to prepare our kids for what we all know is the inevitable college drinking?

My son is 14 and is poised to hit the halls of high school soon. He’s growing before my eyes, looking more and more like a man every day. I have spent years trying to teach him right from wrong, to ingrain in him that he should help his fellow humans, and to be a responsible person. Very soon, he’ll be leaving our home for a dorm room, away from my watchful eye. What will happen when he’s presented with a similar situation? Will he be the kid who calls 911? When I think about Evelyn Piazza and her unfathomable pain, I am terrified for my son. If he drinks too much at a party, will he suffer the same fate?

Parents, we have to do a better job of educating our kids about the pitfalls of alcohol consumption. We also need to teach them how to react and what signs to watch for when their friends are intoxicated.

Sure, you can blame the university, the fraternity, and the college officials who should have been supervising the students. But doing so won’t change what happened to Timothy Piazza.

We can raise our fists at the kids who attended the party and haul them off to court to stand trial for their actions. Our court system will provide justice, but that will be of little solace to the Piazza family.

We can vilify the parents of the teens who are charged and tell the world that our children would never take in such depraved actions.

But anger and outrage after the fact won’t solve the problem.

Talking to your teen about alcohol when they have one foot out the door and in their new dorm room isn’t going to cut it.

Opening the dialogue about alcohol consumption when your children are young is a necessary, life-saving step in the right direction. And the sooner, the better, according to websites like and

Talk early. Talk often. And keep talking. Even when you think they aren’t listening.

Talk to them about your own alcohol consumption. Explain to them why you feel fuzzy after a girls’ night out and discuss making responsible choices when alcohol is involved.

Talk to your kids about stories in the news involving alcohol-related accidents and fatalities. Help your teenager download a ride sharing app to their phone and make sure they know that you’ll pay the fare, no matter what it costs.

Talk to your kid about your own college experiences (it’s okay, you don’t have to tell them the really embarrassing stories). Your children view you as their role model, and knowing that you faced and overcame similar challenges will help them feel stronger, more empowered when they face similar circumstances.

Most importantly, talk to them about kids like Timothy Piazza and the situation that led to his death. Discuss what your child should do if they are ever in a situation where a friend is in trouble. Role-play with them so that they feel comfortable standing up to a crowd who might not want to call the authorities.

And after you talk, listen to what your kids have to say about peer pressure and teenage parties.

Talk. Listen. Repeat.

Because there’s a mother out there who would give anything to talk to her boy one more time.

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