TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Each year, about 190,000 people under the age of 21 end up in the emergency room due to injuries and alcohol poisoning, and approximately 5,000 minors die of alcohol poisoning each year.
Considering that alcohol is by far the drug of choice for our youth, it is important to understand the dynamics around teen and adolescent drinking. Is alcohol use a rite of passage? Many parents struggle with setting limits on alcohol because they used it before they were 21 years old and “turned out fine.”
If kids use alcohol safely and responsibly, then aren’t we teaching them good values about alcohol use?
TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL
While we may be teaching them good values about the use of alcohol, we may be fighting a losing battle with their brains. Recent research has shown that the younger a child is exposed to alcohol use the more likely they will later have to deal with dependence issues.
Furthermore, the brain is still developing into the early 20s. While there is less damage to the brain developing at 16-years-old than to an infant, how can we ever quantify diminished potential?
It is a well accepted fact when brain cells are exposed to alcohol, brain cells die. As adults, we probably have a few to spare. When the brain is still developing, however, damage to brain cells that serve as the base for future brain growth can lead to bigger consequences. It’s like building a house without a complete foundation. We cannot be sure where cracks will emerge, but we know that structurally things are weaker than they should be.
So what if our kids are using alcohol without our consent?
We can’t follow them everywhere they go, and we can’t keep them locked in the house.
What can we do to help our kid abstain from alcohol use, especially when we know that many other kids are doing it? First, we can know the risk factors: family history of alcohol or substance use; depression or anxiety; low self-esteem; social problems and feeling like they “don’t fit in.”
Second, there are some warning signs of alcohol use:
Constant complaints of fatigue or other health complaints. Wanting to stay in bed for long periods of time.
Personality change, sudden mood fluctuations, irritability, poor judgment, and lack of interest in previous activities.
Becomes argumentative, defiant or withdrawn.
Decreased interest in school, negative attitude about school, drop in grades and truancy.
Increased social problems including changes in friendships, spending time with kids who often get in trouble, getting into trouble at school or with the law, major changes in clothes or music preference.
Some of these can be signs of other problems. If you take your child to your general practitioner, they can rule out physical reasons for these changes. Your general practitioner can often also screen for drug and alcohol use. Some of these signs mimic mental health issues. Taking your child into a qualified mental health professional can help to discern if there are mental health problems or substance use.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
There are ways to help prevent your child from using substances and alcohol.
Research has shown that if parents communicate their values about alcohol and substance abuse, the child is less likely to use them. Talking about the reasons for waiting until the age of 21 is important. Kids need to know that their brains are still developing and that use can harm their brains. They need to understand the many possible negative consequences of alcohol use such as: unwanted sexual intercourse, physical accidents, trouble with the law, embarrassing situations posted to the Internet, harming friendships and losing parental trust and privileges.
Do not just assume they know better, let them to know why it is against their best interest to drink alcohol.
SUPERVISION IS KEY
Parental supervision is very important. Teens tend to use substances and alcohol most often between the hours of 3-6 p.m., right after school until their parents return from work.
After school programs or extracurricular activities can be protective by keeping kids busy during unstructured down times after school. Know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. Do their friends drink? Are their friends supervised? Where might they have access to alcohol?
Most of all, remember to clarify your own values about alcohol use and communicate that to your children.
If you suspect there is a problem, there probably is. Whether it is alcohol, mental or physical health issues, respect your instincts as a parent and seek help if necessary.
Jackie Hurt-Coppola, LMFT is a therapist who lives and works in Truckee, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org