Talk with your teen about risky behavior

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Parents, you matter, so with prom and graduation season at hand, take time to talk with your teen about the dangers of underage drinking and drug use/abuse.

Did you know that alcohol is the No. 1 drug of choice among our youth? There are approximately 10.7 million underage drinkers in the U.S. and alcohol is the No. 1 preventable cause of death among youth.

Alcohol is currently being consumed by 14 percent of eight-graders, 29 percent of 10th-graders and 29 percent of 12th-graders. Nearly 8,000 youth drink alcohol for the first time each day.

Youth who begin drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependency or abuse alcohol later in life. When drinking is delayed until 21, a person’s risk of serious alcohol problems is reduced by 70 percent.

Alcohol is financially costly. Annually, underage drinking costs Ohioans an estimated $380 million in medical costs alone.

Alcohol is associated with risky behaviors. Underage alcohol use is linked to a variety of delinquent behaviors, plays a significant role in increased sexual behavior and an estimated 7 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds and 17 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds report having driven under the influence of alcohol in the past year. (Ohioans Partnering for Drug-Free Youth; 2008 NSDUH, National Center for Chronic Disease and Surgeon Generals’ Call to Action).

A recent E-Science News article shows underage binge drinking (consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time) can create lasting brain changes. According to Fulton Crews, PhD, University S.C., “Our findings suggest that individuals that drink heavily during adolescence may be more likely to have deficits in being able to adapt successfully to changing life situations as adults, possibly tied to chemical and/or structural changes in the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that allows us to predict consequences of our actions, control our impulses, refine our reasoning and evaluate short and long-term rewards.”

What can we do? Talk to our kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. Give clear rules and find out what they already know. Start early. Make sure they know that you want them to be safe and avoid the things that can hurt them. Give them the facts. This can help them make good decisions. Set clear rules and help them resist the pressure to fit in. Set a good example. Remember, you are the parent first. The good news is that if we can get them to wait until they are 21, many of them will never drink at all.

Get help if you need it. Don’t wait. Drug and alcohol addiction happens in all families. There are resources available online and many of these sites have interactive Facebook pages:Partnership@Drugfree.org, thecoolspot.gov, notinmyhouse.drugfree.org and Don’tGetMeStartedOhio.org are just a few websites available for families. The parent handbook for talking to teens about alcohol’s “Power of Parents” is available on the MADD website. This free parent handbook is a research based guide for starting the conversation about alcohol with your teen.

Know the underage drinking laws: as a parent you can not give alcohol to your teen’s friends under the age of 21 under any circumstances, even in your own home, even with their parent’s permission. You can not knowingly allow a person under 21, other than your own child, to remain in your home or on your property while consuming or possessing alcohol. Talk with other parents to make sure there will not be alcohol at parties your teen may be attending. Remember that “parents that host lose the most,” a program of Ohio Parents for Drug-free youth.

Remember that you as a parent are the single biggest influence on your teen.

Cathy Harper is coordinator of The Right Path, a United Way Agency.