The holiday season is a time of festivities, giving and reflection. One of the most valuable gifts you can give your child and your community can’t be purchased and costs nothing. The ultimate gift is a contribution to a culture change around the use of alcohol. Take time this season to increase self-awareness of your own relationship with alcohol and to reflect on how your actions and attitudes shape the actions and attitudes of your children and the children around you.
In our culture, alcohol use has been perceived by many to be a rite of passage for adolescents. But we know more now than we did 20 years ago about how alcohol affects the developing brain and the societal and economic costs that stem from adolescent alcohol use.
Alcohol affects youths differently from adults because the adolescent brain is still developing. When adolescents consume alcohol, brain development is damaged both in the short term and long term and increases vulnerability to addiction. Young people who begin drinking before age 17 are twice as likely to develop alcohol dependence as those who begin drinking at age 21. Those who begin by age 15 are more than four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence.
Alcohol kills 6.5 times more youth in this country than all other illegal drugs combined. Having designated drivers or taking away the car keys doesn’t make underage drinking safe. Only one-third of underage drinking deaths involve auto crashes. The remaining two-thirds involve alcohol poisoning, homicides, suicides and unintentional injuries such as burns, drowning and falls. Other consequences include risk of academic failure and dropping out of school, depression, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and other drug abuse including marijuana, tobacco and prescription drugs.
The good news is that underage drinking is not an inevitable rite of passage. A large percentage of kids don’t drink. In Penobscot County, anonymous student surveys showed that many teens — including 70 percent of 10th-graders and 60 percent of 12th-graders — had not consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.
As a community, we can have a positive impact in reducing underage drinking by:
Setting clear rules and expectations. Research shows that the majority of kids respond best to clear rules — from both their parents and society at large. For example, studies show that underage youth are significantly less likely to drink alcohol when they believe they’ll be caught by police. They’re even less likely to drink alcohol when they believe their parents think it would be very wrong for them to do so. It’s OK to say, “Underage drinking is illegal, and I don’t approve of it. There will be consequences if you engage in underage drinking.”
Examining our own use patterns. Do you ask your kids to grab you a drink from the refrigerator? Do you make lighthearted jokes or comments about other people’s drinking? Do you consider use of alcohol to be a rite of passage that can’t be avoided? Do you assume that alcohol is a necessary part of any celebration or social gathering? Do you model using alcohol as a stress reduction tool? Do you host parties at your house where alcohol is served or available to teens? Does your child observe you drinking more than two or three drinks on any one occasion?
Modeling is one of the most important actions we can engage in as a community to deter underage drinking. Our behaviors affect children’s attitudes about alcohol.
As your gift to the community this year, spend a few minutes reflecting on your own relationship with alcohol. Consider the many messages your actions send to your children and other children in the community. Take steps to make sure your children know you don’t approve of underage drinking and that there will be consequences if they engage in underage drinking. Increased awareness and examination of our own behavior is the first small but powerful step in truly affecting addiction in Maine.
A special thanks to 21 Reasons and the Maine Office of Substance Abuse for providing much of the content in this article. For information go to www.21reasons.org and www.maineparents.net or contact the Health Promotion Program for the Bangor Region at 992-4530 to engage in reducing underage drinking in your community.
Jamie Comstock is the Health Promotion Program manager and Emer Schiefen is a substance abuse and tobacco prevention specialist at Bangor Region Public Health and Wellness, a division of Bangor Health and Community Services.