Addiction and Recovery
What's the worst thing that could possibly happen?
It's a question all parents should ask themselves when considering any event involving teenagers and alcohol. In fact, it's a question teenagers should ask themselves about any event involving them and drinking.
Unfortunately, even on the rare occasion when the question is asked, the “worst thing” seldom comes to mind. Until it happens. It happened New Year's Day in the Town of Crawford in upstate New York and a young man is dead and several people’s lives have been dramatically impacted.
A fight broke out at a party in a private home in which, police say, about 100 young people, most believed to be underage, were drinking. A 20-year-old male who tried to break up the fight was stabbed to death. Police are still looking for his killer. There were no adults present at the party, according to police.
According to New York state law, the parents whose teenaged children hosted the party could be liable for fines. Lawsuits are possible. It's called the social host law and its intent is to discourage underage drinking at parties in private homes by imposing penalties on persons responsible for overseeing the home when minors other than their children consume alcohol. Some New York counties have their own social host laws, which are tougher than the state’s. Orange County, where the killing occurred, is considering adopting one.
Such punitive laws -- essentially designed to protect us from ourselves -- are necessary in our society because the preventive approach is too often ignored. That approach consists of parents educating their young children -- preteens or young teens -- on the risks of drinking alcohol before they are physically, mentally and emotionally able to handle it and, yes, letting them know they do not approve of them drinking if they are not of legal age.
A common response to this suggestion is that kids don't listen to their parents and teens are going to rebel and drink anyway, because all
their friends do. If we don’t let them drink, the thinking goes, they’ll be ostracized. So let's teach them to drink responsibly when they’re young. That way they won’t have problems with alcohol when they are older.
Well, the National Institutes of Health, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the Treatment Research Institute, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Justice and pretty much any organization that has studied the impact of alcohol consumption on young people, disagree with that view. The research all says that, despite a widespread assumption to the contrary:
- Parents still have the most influence on their children, especially when they are young;
- Having conversations, not lectures, with children about your feelings on alcohol before they begin drinking (eighth grade is not too soon) will have more influence than if they have already started;
- Even in later teen years, parents can still exert major influence on their children’s behavior.
The reasons for focusing on teenagers and alcohol have been discussed in this column before, but, briefly, teens who drink are more likely:
- to be victims of violent crime,
- to be involved in alcohol-related traffic crashes
- to have serious school-related problems
- to develop alcohol dependence than persons who wait until adulthood to start drinking
The earlier the child starts drinking, the greater the odds of some of those problems developing. This comes from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which also says, “The bottom line is that most young teens don’t yet drink. And parents’ disapproval of youthful alcohol use is the key reason children choose not to drink.”
The NIAAA has an excellent pamphlet for parents who are unsure about whether to or how to talk to their children about alcohol. It’s not unusual to be uncomfortable with the subject and each situation is different, but dealing honestly with uncomfortable issues and modeling responsible behavior are proven ways to help children make responsible decisions when they’re on their own. The pamphlet is called “Make a Difference. Talk to Your Children About Alcohol.” http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/MakeADiff_HTML/makediff.htm
When the worst possible thing happens, it gets people’s attention. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. At the very least, the New Year’s Day tragedy presents an opportunity to remind ourselves that there are positive ways to deal with difficult issues and help available in doing so. Now that we’ve got your attention, talk to your kids about alcohol.
For more information
-- Partnership for Drug-Free Kids
-- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD)
(212) 269–7797; Fax: (212) 269–7510
-- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
-- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Drug Information Treatment and Referral Hotline
(800) 662–HELP (4357) (toll free)
24-hour Victim Help Line
-- Partnership for Drug-Free KIds