Question of the Week

May 6, 2008


Parents are often aware that many teens experiment with alcohol, but parents don't always know the extent to which their children drink or how dangerous it can be.

"Although experimentation with alcohol may be common among kids, it's not safe or legal. ... Alcohol interferes with a person's perception of reality and ability to make good decisions."

Many parents (and teens) do not see alcohol as a "serious" drug, so they don't worry about it as much as they would if they thought their children were experimenting with (or regularly using) drugs like cocaine or heroine.

Alcohol is responsible for the deaths of thousands each year. Unfortunately, the use of alcohol among those under the age of 21 results not only in deaths from alcohol poisoning, but from decisions made when judgement is alcohol impaired, as well.

"Alcohol is the drug of choice among youth. Many young people are experiencing the consequences of drinking too much, at too early an age. As a result, underage drinking is a leading public health problem in this country. Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking; this includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, as well as hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drownings. ... Research also shows that many adolescents start to drink at very young ages. In 2003, the average age of first use of alcohol was about 14, compared to about 17 1/2 in 1965. People who reported starting to drink before the age of 15 were four times more likely to also report meeting the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives ... Other research shows that the younger children and adolescents are when they start to drink, the more likely they will be to engage in behaviors that harm themselves and others."

Parents may not realize that elementary and middle school students are exposed to alcohol, or they may just be in denial. They may not think that their children would allow themselves to be influenced by peer pressure and make the choice to drink--or to get into the car with someone who has been drinking.

"More than half of all Massachusetts students will ride in a car where a driver has been drinking. One pact many of us make with our children is that if they do drink, we will pick them up regardless of time or place. There's usually a 'no questions asked' clause in there. It's tough but worth it..."
The Boston Globe

Not just if the teenager drinks and needs a ride, but if the friend who drove them drinks--and so they need a ride--kids and teens should be able to call their parents and ask to be picked up without fear of what their parents might do.

Parents would rather have their kids safe. They don't want them to drive drunk; they don't want them to get into a car with a drunk driver. These parents still may not have thought to make the offer of a "no questions asked" safe ride policy if their child is ever in a position where they need to call for a ride home.

Parents often think that their teen "knows better" than to drink and drive, or that s/he would never get into the car with a drunk driver.

Parents may not even realize that their child drinks at all.

"In Milton [Massachusetts], on the first [underage drinking] offense, police call parents and have them pick up the kids, either at headquarters or at the party site: woods, parks, and ponds. Usually, says Chief Richard Wells, it's a wakeup call... Wells's message to parents: 'Know where your kids are. Just because you buy your kid a cellphone doesn't mean you know where they are all the time.'"
The Boston Globe

Once their children are in junior high or high school, some parents think it is time to talk with them about the dangers of alcohol. Unfortunately, by this point, it may be too late.

Parents often don't realize how young children are when they are first exposed to drinking amongst their friends and peers. Not that four-year-olds are likely to be offered a beer on a play date, but they can start learning about the effects of alcohol on their bodies and grow up with an age appropriate understanding that can prepare them for when that first alcoholic beverage is offered.

"Ages 4 to 7: ... Most children at this age are interested in how their bodies work, so this is a good time to talk about maintaining good health and avoiding substances that might harm the body. You may want to tell your child alcohol hurts your ability to see, hear, and walk down the sidewalk without tripping; it alters the way you feel; and it doesn't let you judge as well to see whether the water is too deep or if there's a car coming too close. ...

Ages 8 to 11: ... Kids at this age tend to love to learn facts, especially strange ones, and they are eager to learn how things work and what sources of information are available to them. This is a good time to openly discuss facts about alcohol: the long- and short-term effects and consequences of using alcohol, the effects of alcohol on different parts of the body, and why it's especially dangerous for growing bodies. A child can also be heavily influenced by his or her friends at this age. A child's interests may be determined by what a group of friends thinks. ... Casual discussions about alcohol and friends can take place at the dinner table as part of your normal conversation.

Ages 12 to 17: By the time your child is a teenager, he or she should be very familiar with the facts about alcohol and should have been exposed to your attitudes and beliefs about substance abuse. So you can use this time to reinforce what you've already taught your child and focus on keeping the lines of communication open. During the teen years, kids are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Their increasing need for independence may make kids want to defy their parents' wishes or instructions as a way of asserting their independence. But if you make your child feel accepted and respected as an individual, you will increase the chances that your child will try to be open with you."

As parents talk with their children about the effects of alcohol on their bodies, they may be thinking of things from an adult perspective. As if decreased dexterity and impaired judgement were not enough, kids and teens who drink have even more to think about.

"Whatever it is that leads adolescents to begin drinking, once they start they face a number of potential health risks. ...

  • Brain Effects—Scientists currently are examining just how alcohol affects the developing brain, but it's a difficult task. ... Research has shown that animals fed alcohol during this critical developmental stage continue to show long-lasting impairment from alcohol as they age. It's simply not known how alcohol will affect the long-term memory and learning skills of people who began drinking heavily as adolescents.
  • Liver Effects—Elevated liver enzymes, indicating some degree of liver damage, have been found in some adolescents who drink alcohol. Young drinkers who are overweight or obese showed elevated liver enzymes even with only moderate levels of drinking.
  • Growth and Endocrine Effects—In both males and females, puberty is a period associated with marked hormonal changes, including increases in the sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone. ... Drinking alcohol during this period of rapid growth and development (i.e., prior to or during puberty) may upset the critical hormonal balance necessary for normal development of organs, muscles, and bones. Studies in animals also show that consuming alcohol during puberty adversely affects the maturation of the reproductive system."

Questions of the Week:
What do your parents know about alcohol and the effects it can have on the body of a developing child or teen? What do they know about the dangers of alcohol in general? What do you they know about the prevalence of drinking among teens and tweens? What do you think they should know as responsible parents? What do you wish they had told you when you were younger? How does what you think they "should know as responsible parents" differ from what you want them to know? What do you think would be the best way to educate your parents (and the parents of your peers) about the realities of alcohol and teen (tween) life in today's world?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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