Please note that although I was compensated for writing this post, all opinions expressed are purely mine. I mean teens and alcohol? They don't mix. It's pretty simple.
At the tender age of 13, my son has a lot of firsts to look forward to: his first kiss, the first time he gets behind the wheel of a car, and his first sip of alcohol. While all are thrilling, it's the latter first experience that I'm concerned with.
The statistics make me worry. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (http://www.niaaa.nih.gov):
- A person who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol addiction than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol.
- A national survey indicated that one in five 8th graders report drinking alcohol within the past month.
- 17% of 8th graders say they've gotten drunk at least once in the past year.
Does one sip of beer mean Junior will slip into alcoholism? No, but some studies have indicated that family members of alcoholics (we have at least two in the family) are three to four times more likely to develop the disease than people who do not have alcoholic family members (source: http://www.alcoholic.org/research/is-alcoholism-inherited). And individuals who are closely related to an alcoholic may have a more positive reaction to alcoholic drinks, possibly because they have a gene which makes the substance more pleasurable, thus increasing the likelihood of addiction. In fact, scientists suggest that alcoholism has a genetic component involving as many as 39 genes!
According to the experts at Advanced Health and Education in New Jersey who specialize in treating adult and adolescent addictions, there are multiple signs of alcohol abuse and dependence including:
- Neglecting responsibilities, like school and family.
- Relationship issues like fights with family and loved ones or the loss of old friends.
- Changing one's plans so that life revolves around planning where and when to get the next drink (for example, which teen party is more likely to serve alcohol).
- Making plans on how to recover from a binge.
- Physical withdrawal symptoms which can include anxiety and jumpiness, shaking and trembling, sweating, nausea, insomnia, depression, fatigue and the loss of appetite in the absence of the alcohol.
Alcohol abuse also increases the likelihood of at-risk behaviors like driving under the influence, having unprotected sex, and getting arrested for disorderly conduct and theft (source: http://www.advhealth.com/conditions/alcohol-abuse-treatment).
So how can parents decrease the chances that teens will wind up in alcohol rehab and need the alcohol treatment centers? Well, if you've been modeling good behavior (as in not getting drunk or planning your evening based on which restaurants serve alcohol), that's a start. Having a relationship in which open communication is encouraged is another (for a great pamphlet from National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, click here: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/children.pdf). More tips include:
- Make the discussion about alcohol a conversation, rather than a lecture. Control your emotions if you hear something you disagree with and make every discussion a “win-win” experience by respecting your kid's viewpoint.
- Give your child the simple facts about alcohol. These include the fact that it's a dangerous drug that slows down the body and mind; that beer and wine are not “safer” than hard liquor; that anyone, including teens, can develop an addiction to alcohol; and that alcohol abuse and addiction can produce impairments in memory even after only a few drinks (source: www.advhealth.com/conditions/alcohol-abuse-treatment).
- Set clear, realistic expectations for your child including one which says that you expect him/her not to drink until they're of legal age. Establish appropriate consequences for breaking that rule and be prepared to consistently enforce it, if need be.
- Let him/her know that there are lots of reasons for them not to drink (like the fact they're more likely to do something embarrassing when they're under the influence, they're too smart to need the crutch that alcohol provides, that it's illegal, and that it's toxic to their bodies).
- Give them the tools to resist peer pressure. Some responses to being offered a drink could include: “No thanks,” “I don't feel like it,” “I actually prefer soda,” “I just don't drink,” and “I said 'no' so stop pressuring me.”
Sure, there are treatments for alcoholism and, God knows, there are plenty of alcohol rehabilitation centers should adolescents go down that path. But as parents, we obviously want to prevent that. The dialogue about alcohol was started with my son years ago. The trick is not to assume he internalized the knowledge that my husband and I, as well as the school, gave him. There's a big difference between talking about that first sip, Junior actually taking it and when, as well as what happens after that. It's worth my concern.