- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

Janet Jacobs of Springfield — like many parents of teenagers — is acutely aware of the consequences of underage drinking.

“You hear about teens drinking and driving on the news all the time,” Ms. Jacobs says. “I don’t think Jessica would drink alcohol, and I don’t think she would get in a car with someone who’s been drinking,” Ms. Jacobs says of her 15-year old daughter. “But of course I worry about her drinking and what might happen. …

“I think my biggest fear is that Jessica would become pregnant,” she says, almost whispering.

Ms. Jacobs’ fears are well-founded.

Alcohol is the leading contributor to injury deaths, the leading cause of death for persons younger than 21. These include deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides and injuries incurred while intoxicated, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which also reports that alcohol is a factor in at least 50,000 date rapes every year at colleges nationwide.

No one professes to know of a silver bullet that would make the problems of underage and binge drinking go away. However, alcohol researchers say parents — along with school and other community resources — can play an important role in preventing teenage drinking.

“Many parents think underage drinking is inevitable,” says Lisa Adler, founder of Safe Youth Coalition, a Springfield-based nonprofit that provides information on substance abuse prevention to three area high schools.

“But parents are a big influence. If we keep talking to our children, we have a chance,” says Ms. Adler, mother of three children, ages 15, 18 and 21.

Joseph Califano, chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, agrees about the importance of family in combating underage drinking.

“Parent power is the most underestimated resource,” says Mr. Califano, whose national nonprofit group does research on substance abuse among youths ages 12 through 17. “Parents have the greatest influence on their children.”

However, alcohol is so readily available that it’s a tall order for anyone, including parents, to prevent children from drinking, he says.

“In this country, every kid will be offered drugs, alcohol and tobacco before they graduate from high school,” Mr. Califano says. “And their will and skill to say ‘no’ will come largely from their parents.”

Modeling behavior

One of the most important ways parents can influence their children in a positive way regarding alcohol consumption is through modeling behavior, Mr. Califano says.

“Teenagers don’t read lips, they look at actions,” he says. “If a young kid sees that the father can only relax if he has three or four drinks, then the kid will think that’s the only way to relax.”

Instead, parents should make an effort to have family dinners most if not all evenings of the week, he says.

“The more often teens have dinner with the family, the less the risk of underage drinking,” he says.

There are several reasons for this, he says. First, by making an effort to sit down for dinner as a family, the parents show they care about the teen. Second, having dinner together every night allows the parents to develop a strong relationship with the teen, who otherwise might just go to his or her room, close the door and avoid interaction with the parents.

Fifteen-year-old Steven Adler, Ms. Adler’s son, says his mother constantly talks to him about drinking and the ill effect alcohol can have on a teen’s health.

“Sometimes it gets annoying. I feel like I already know it, that it’s common sense,” says Steven, who adds that he has tasted alcohol but doesn’t like it.

It’s common that teens seem uninterested or irritated at parents’ advice on alcohol, but Mr. Califano says this attitude should not deter parents from communicating what they think.

“Remember you’re their parent, not their pal. …Let them grumble, let them complain,” he says. “They may seem like they’re not listening, but they hear you.”

Aside from family dinners, other activities that can be done as a family — such as going to church — also have been shown to decrease the risk of underage drinking, he says.

One thing that doesn’t work, however, is trying to scare a teen into not touching alcohol.

“Youth doesn’t react strongly to the message ‘bad things will happen to you if you drink.’ They feel they’re immune,” says Henry Wechsler, author of “Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses.”

Know teen’s friends

Another important weapon in fighting underage drinking is getting to know a teen’s friends and the friends’ parents, says Judge Teena Grodner of the Fairfax County Juvenile and Family Domestic Relations Court.

“There are parents who figure that teens are going to drink anyway, so they supply it,” Judge Grodner said recently when she spoke at a meeting for teens and parents organized by the Safe Youth Coalition. “Others allow parties at their home and just close the door.”

However, she said, supplying alcohol to minors is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison.

“This is why you need to know who the parents are and whose house your child is going to,” she said.

She also said parents need to ask for specifics when their teens say they are going to be “around” with “friends” and doing “stuff.”

Mr. Califano says CASA research has shown that teens are at an increased risk for underage drinking if they spend time with a girlfriend or boyfriend on a daily basis. He recommends that parents try to limit the time teens spend with a girlfriend or boyfriend.

Other ways parents can help stop underage drinking is to make sure the teen is involved in activities after school, says Allyne Zappalla, a social worker with the Loudoun County public school system.

“It’s really important to keep kids occupied in extracurricular activities,” Ms. Zappalla says. When teens have time on their hands, such as between 3 and 6 p.m. and during long summer vacations, that’s when they get into trouble, she says.

Extracurricular activities also can provide parents an opportunity to recognize their teens for achievements instead of just talking down to the teens when they’re in trouble, she adds.

Parents also should attempt to control how much spending money a teen has, Mr. Califano advises.

“Don’t give them too much spending money. The more money they have, the more likely they are to do drugs and drink alcohol,” he says.

But all this — particularly limiting spending money and inquiring about the teen’s whereabouts, friends and friends’ parents — can feel invasive to the teen, Ms. Adler says.

“It’s such a fine line. … On the one hand, you ask them where they’re going and with whom, which they don’t like because they feel it violates the little sense of independence that they have,” Ms. Adler says. “On the other hand, you want them to trust you because if they can’t turn to their parents, who can they turn to?”

Community matters

Preventing teenage drinking is a complex issue, and parents need all the support from the community — including schools and law enforcement — they can get, Ms. Adler says.

The Safe Youth Coalition, which she started several years ago, is an example of how parents can work together and receive help and support from a wide range of resources. Other high schools in the area have similar coalitions.

One of the events the Safe Youth Coalition organized with the help of Fairfax County Public Schools’ Safe and Drug Free Youth Section was operation Sticker Shock, in which high school students and police officers go to local liquor stores and apply stickers to bottles and cases of beer and wine and other alcohol. The stickers say it’s illegal to sell to and/or serve minors.

“It’s aimed at adults,” says Clarence Jones, coordinator for the Safe and Drug Free Youth Section. “When people see that, they think twice before buying alcohol for a minor.”

The coalition also organizes meetings, such as the one where Judge Grodner spoke recently, where school counselors can share with parents the types of resources schools provide and police officers can talk about what they see on the streets — such as drinking and driving — and what the laws say.

However, absent from the latest meeting were liquor providers — manufacturers, stores and bars — a group that should be engaged in a dialogue and held accountable to a much greater degree, Mr. Wechsler says.

“They need to be held responsible for their actions. … No one should be able to make a profit from selling to minors,” he says.

What do high school and college students say about all these strategies?

College student Ryan Adler, Ms. Adler’s 20-year-old son, applauds his mother’s efforts and says parents’ involvement does matter, but only so much.

“The reality is, if kids want to drink, they’re going to find a way,” he says.

More info:

Books —

• “Teens Under the Influence: The Truth About Kids, Alcohol and Other Drugs — How to Recognize the Problem and What to Do About It,” by Katherine Ketcham, Ballantine Books, 2003. This book aims to give parents a guide on topics such as common myths and misconceptions about drug addiction, differences between adult and adolescent dependency, reasons teens get hooked, stages of adolescent addiction and various treatment options.

• “Just Say Know: Talking With Kids About Drugs and Alcohol,” by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder and Wilkie Wilson, W.W. Norton & Co., 2002. This book gives parents and educators tools to talk with children about how alcohol and other drugs interact with their minds and bodies.

• “Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses,” by Henry Wechsler, Rodale, 2002. This book, based on surveys from 50,000 students at 140 four-year colleges, presents an overview of underage drinking. It gives statistics on the rate of binge drinking and other alcohol-related issues. It also offers ideas and solutions aimed at students, parents, schools and lawmakers in the final chapters.

Associations —

• The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 200 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20201. Phone: 202/619-0257. Web site: www.hhs.gov. This department provides information on youths and alcohol abuse, particularly through its Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, whose Web address is www.samhsa.gov.

• The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), 633 Third Ave., 19th Floor, New York, NY 10017-6706. Phone: 212/841-5200. Web site: www.casacolumbia.org. This nonprofit group does research on teen behavior and attitudes toward drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Among its goals are informing Americans of the economic and social costs of substance abuse and its impact on their lives as well as assessing what works in prevention, treatment and law enforcement.

Online—

• Students Against Destructive Decisions, formerly Students Against Driving Drunk (www.saddonline.com), is a nonprofit group in Marlborough, Mass. Its Web site offers information on local chapters of SADD and statistics on teenagers and substance abuse.

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