Teens and Alcohol: What’s a Parent to Do?

June is just around the corner. School and family graduation celebrations are already being planned. But what kind of parties are your teens planning to attend, perhaps without your knowledge?

We tend to think that all teens who drink alcohol are troubled or live in stressed environments. Experts connect “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES), such as abuse, neglect, and parent discord, as risk factors for long-term substance abuse and other risky behaviors.

Dr. Robert Holmberg, pediatric consultant at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, explains, “We know from research that supporting social and emotional childhood experiences with positive parent interactive relationships relates directly to healthier mental and physical health outcomes for teens and adults. Although ACES can lead to poor adult outcomes such as substance abuse and incarceration, positive parenting can lead to resiliency and prevention of adverse outcomes.”

Many teens experiment with alcohol use, and often drink during the day when their parents are working. The National Institutes of Health report that alcohol is the drug of choice among youth. The Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Survey (MYDAUS 2008) shows that 5% of 12 year olds in Hancock County and 45% of 18 year olds reported using alcohol in the previous 30 days. Although most may not develop long-term abuse patterns, all are at risk for injury or death due to accidents, falls, blackouts, or drownings.

Helen Deuschle, LCSW, family counselor at Island Family Medicine, a department of Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, has learned that “new studies in the field of neuroscience reinforce how alcohol effects the brain – impairing thinking, regulation of emotions, and judgment – leading to risky behaviors and lack of understanding of consequences. Teenage alcohol use is not a moral issue, but a health issue, and we need to help our teens learn skills that will keep them healthy and safe.”

Educating our children and ourselves is the best defense against alcohol use. School health programs in the past were primarily informational, often used scare tactics and were not effective. Today’s substance prevention programs include social influence models, setting norms, addressing social pressures to drink, and teaching resistance skills.
Parents have a very real influence on whether their child drinks or not. Research shows that friends, media, TV ads, and teachers all take a back seat to the positive influence of parents. Setting clear rules against drinking, consistently enforc¬ing those rules, and monitoring your teen’s behavior all help to reduce the likelihood of underage drinking.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) offers these steps to help your son or daughter steer clear of the dangers of underage drinking: Think of yourself as a coach: share information, discuss choices, and help your teen anticipate and handle challenging situations. Keep track of your teen: agree on rules, limits, and consequences; talk to parents of kids with whom your teen spends time; enforce consequences consistently. Show respect and caring: listen respectfully to his or her ideas and concerns; help your teen think logically and make smart choices; remind your teen of how much you love and care about them. Be a positive role model: your teen will be most receptive to your guidance if you lead by example and act responsibly.

Here are some tips from the experts when talking to your kids about alcohol: Tell them what you think, say it often, but don’t talk too long. Make it short and simple, and then hear what they have to say. When they talk, listen and don’t correct. Be honest and tell them what troubles you the most about the very real risks of underage drinking. The most important point is to convey your genuine fears and concerns.

Being a good role model for family members, especially teens and young adults, means making sure alcohol is only available to those of legal age. At family celebrations, offer plenty of food and non-alcohol alternatives. Having fun together doesn’t have to involve substance use, and make sure everyone gets home safely.

Here’s what you can do! Talk to your health care provider, mental health counselors, and school guidance counselors about any concerns. Join a parents support group in your school or community. Learn more about how alcohol can affect your child.
Your Health Matters is a monthly health column by Healthy Peninsula and the Blue Hill Memorial Hospital. Sandra Phoenix is a family nurse practitioner and a member of the HP Advisory Board