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What Are They Drinking?

Help teens avoid the pitfalls of consuming alcohol
By Cary and Tonja Rector


The summer season is here. It’s an exciting time for teens. Prom, senior ball, graduation—there’s a lot to celebrate. And while parents are happy to see their teen enjoy the activities of high school, they also worry about drinking, especially this time of year.

The concern is legitimate. Each year 5,000 people under age 21 die in alcohol-related accidents and 190,000 teenagers visit emergency rooms for alcohol-related injuries. Alcohol impairs judgment, which can result in risky behaviors like drinking and driving, sexual activity or violence. Youth who drink are more likely to be victimized or carry out a physical assault. It’s the stuff of parental nightmares.

Drinking alcohol is ingrained in our culture. People who have been drinking are often portrayed as entertaining in movies, television and even family stories. Given the level of acceptance in our society, teens are going to be curious and want to try alcohol.

A distinction is often made between alcohol and other “drug” problems. Alcohol is a drug. It is the No. 1 drug of abuse, causing more problems for individuals and families than all other drugs combined. Half of all seventh through 12th graders drink, one-fifth of them drink weekly, and one-third of teens rode with a drinking driver in the last year.

Not every teen who tries alcohol becomes dependent or addicted. Pay attention to warning signs that include academic or behavioral problems at school (including skipping classes), changes in groups of friends, or less interest in activities and personal appearance. Finding alcohol or evidence of alcohol use is a red flag not to be dismissed.

What else?

Let your teens know you expect them to abstain from alcohol. Get involved in the details of their social plans. Where are they going, who will be there (will there be adult supervision), how will they get there (who is driving)? And set a curfew and check-in time. Try to be aware of who they are spending time with and where. Some adult households allow drinking or offer little supervision.

Think about the role model you are setting surrounding alcohol use. One of every four teenagers is trying to deal with the tremendous problems created from adult alcohol addiction in their families. Are you are modeling alcohol as a way to cope or the primary activity in social gatherings?

Establish a code word. When kids begin to socialize without direct adult supervision, it’s a good idea to establish a code word. They can use the code word to let parents know they need to leave the situation they are in. For example, if your word is “cupcakes,” your teen can say or text, “Mom, I don’t feel like making cupcakes tomorrow like I said I would.” If your teen uses the code word, the agreement is you will immediately pick him or her up, no questions asked. Use of a code word gives teens a way to exit a bad situation without lengthy or embarrassing explanations to parents. Ask your teen to use the code word if he has been drinking or if his driver has been drinking. Let him know if he is in this situation, getting home safely is the first priority.

Help them feel grown up. Adolescents often want to feel grown up and complain that parents treat them like “little kids.” Parents can involve teens in decision-making about family activities and take their input seriously. Teens can also be given more responsibility for decisions about their own lives and then live with the consequences, both good and bad. Learning to make small decisions in life prepares you for the bigger ones.

Teach positive coping skills. Our society often looks to outside sources to help us feel better. Alcohol is one of those sources. Feeling down, stressed, irritable? Have a drink. Parents can help children and teens develop skills for dealing with those feelings more constructively. Promote activities such as exercise, a warm shower or engaging in a hobby to cope with negative feelings.

Encourage a variety of interests. One reason teens try alcohol is to have a group they belong to. Group identity is very important during adolescence. If no other group fits, they can become part of the party crowd. Parents can encourage kids to pursue their interests and get involved with positive peer groups. Focus on their strengths and help them find ways to develop those areas. Having an identity as an artist, athlete, musician or community volunteer provides a sense of belonging. Many schools offer after-school clubs and activities for a wide variety of interests.

Talk to them. The culture of teenage and young adult drinking has changed. There is more binge drinking than when parents were teens. This focus on consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time is risky. Teens’ bodies can quickly become overwhelmed. Teens may not understand the risks or recognize the signs of someone with alcohol poisoning. That friend “sleeping it off” could be in serious trouble. Alcohol served as shots, infused into Jell-O or whipped cream allows a teen to consume at a much higher rate than drinking from a beer bottle.

Teenage drinking is a concern of every parent with an adolescent. Equipped with coping skills and good communication with parents, teens are more likely to make better choices when faced with decisions about alcohol use.