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Alcohol and teens

What you need to know: Advice for parents when it comes to teen drinking.

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By Eric Creamer

Being the parent of a teenager is hard enough, but when issues of alcohol and drugs come up, the conversation needs a whole new game plan.

It is not easy to talk to your children, especially teenagers, about issues pertaining to health, but it is necessary. A child’s safety is first and foremost for all parents and speaking about protecting themselves from dangerous situations and providing information to them can only be helpful.

Starting a conversation about alcohol
One great starting point is the legality of particular actions that some kids take. The legal drinking age in every state is 21 years old. The age limit for alcohol is based on research which shows that young people react differently to alcohol. Teens get drunk twice as fast as adults, but have more trouble knowing when to stop. Teens naturally overdo it and binge more often than adults.

Enforcing the legal drinking age of 21 reduces traffic crashes, protects young people’s maturing brains, and keeps young people safer overall. There are serious legal infractions for youth who are in underage possession of alcohol and other illicit drugs.

Speaking of legality, adults have a responsibility as well to follow the law. Many parents think that if they teach their teens how to drink alcohol responsibly by giving them small amounts under supervision, it will help them, which is an extremely common belief. Evidence shows that this is detrimental and that when teens feel they have their parents’ approval to drink, they do it more and more often when they are not with their parents.

Parents may not know a teen is drinking
Studies show that one in seven young people binge drink, but only one in 100 adults believe that their children do. Some adults feel that it is ok to have a controlled environment where their children and their friends can have a party where alcohol is present instead of a private function with no parents present. However, there are many liabilities associated with making that decision. It is illegal to supply alcohol to minors, including to those that are not our own, and most states have Social Host laws that detail the potential incarceration, fines, and other penalties associated with a conviction upon breaking those laws.

Health risks of teen alcohol use
Underage drinking causes a multitude of health risks. In fact, the earlier someone begins drinking, the more likely they are to be alcohol dependent in later life. More than 40 percent of individuals who start drinking before the age of 13 will develop alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.

Ninety-five percent of the 14 million people who are alcohol dependent began drinking before the legal age of 21. Alcohol use by those under 21 is also related to numerous health problems including injuries and death resulting from alcohol poisoning, car crashes, suicide, homicide, assaults, drowning, and recreational mishaps.

The human brain continues to grow into a person’s early 20s. Drinking alcohol during that time can damage short and long-term brain growth and that damage can be permanent. And it’s not just heavy drinking that can impact teens. Teens who drink half as much alcohol as adults can still suffer the same negative effects. Kids are more likely to suffer blackouts, memory loss, and alcohol poisoning from drinking, as well as to cause damage to their ability to remember things in the future. All parts of the growing brain are impacted negatively by alcohol, but the memory function is especially hard hit.
Other negative impacts on teens include that adolescent drinkers perform worse in school, are more likely to fall behind, and have an increased risk of social problems, depression, suicidal thoughts and violence.

Also, because the brain (specifically, the regulation of the brain through serotonin, which provides balance and impulse control) becomes used to the use of alcohol, people who begin drinking in their teens are not only at greater risk for developing alcoholism sometime in their lives, they are also at greater risk for developing alcoholism more quickly and at younger ages, especially chronic, relapsing alcoholism.

Have concrete, enforced rules about alcohol
When parents have concrete, enforced rules about alcohol, young people binge drink less. There are so many activities that you can do together that are positive, interactive, fun, and safe. We all know that many teenagers don’t want to talk to their parents about topics that might make them uncomfortable, but the common message that kids respect their parents’ opinions and guidance more than adults think is actually true.

Kids may act rebelliously, shut doors on you or openly state they don’t care, but, fortunately, you can improve parent-teen communication by learning how teens reason and make choices. It is different than adults and may be hard for a parent to remember exactly what they were thinking or how they reacted to things when they were the same age.

You can also learn communication strategies that encourage teens to come out of their shells. Think of yourself as a coach and provide them resources, sharing thoughts, cheering them on in making good choices, and helping them anticipate and face challenging situations.
Showing respect and care towards them means a lot, and being a positive role model by being responsible as a parent and leading by example will make it more likely that they will follow your guidance.

Know the warning signs
It is also important to keep track of children, know who they are with, and know the warning signs of possible alcohol and drug abuse. All rules, limits and consequences should be agreed upon by both parents and the children and all repercussions should be enforced consistently. Talking with the parents of a child’s friends is extremely vital in understanding who the child is interacting with.

Depending on what is happening in a child’s life, certain actions or behaviors might clue in a parent that something may be worth questioning. If an adult has alcohol in the home, and some is missing or emptied, that may be a sign that a child may have consumed it or taken it.

Other major signs could be skipping school, dropping grades, taking or borrowing more money, alcohol or drugs hidden in a teenager’s backpack, room, or car, and intoxicated behavior, such as stumbling or awkward movements, slurred speech, and a dull or unfocused look or bloodshot eyes.

Visit the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website, www.madd.org, for more information.

Eric Creamer is the State Executive Director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Rhode Island.