By Hilary Mahan
According to the recently released California Healthy Kids Survey, 29% of 11th graders and 9% of 9th graders surveyed in Manhattan Beach have binge drunk (consuming more than 4-5 drinks in about two hours) in the last 30 days. It is widely accepted that drugs and alcohol present a tremendous threat to the health and well being of a family. Over the past few years researchers have determined that binge drinking as little as once or twice per month may cause irreversible brain damage in young people. This damage impacts spatial functioning skills and the ability to focus. As the parent, you are responsible for ensuring that drug and alcohol usage does not inflict harm on your children. Talking to your child about drug and alcohol use is an important part of keeping your family safe.
So what’s the secret to keeping the lines of communication open with your child? Dr. Rocky Wilson, family advocate and beloved teacher at Mira Costa High School, believes that parents in our community have the capacity to help steer their children in the right direction. Young adults don’t have the judgment or life experiences to adequately weigh the pros and cons of their actions – they need us to set limits so they can learn how to set their own.
Start early. Most experts will agree that it is never too early to start the discussion. Consider what is age appropriate for your child. Conducting a 30-minute lecture on the dangers of heroin is not right for a 10 year old, but talking about the logic behind a legal drinking age of 21 would be. According to Dr. Wilson, the first introduction to drugs or alcohol could be as early as fifth grade when kids become more curious about their parents activities. It is important to anticipate the challenges and needs of a child before the temptations of drugs and alcohol are present.
Know your facts, and the myths. When you educate yourself about drugs and alcohol, you will feel more capable to discuss them openly. Alcohol is the drug of choice for teens. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), about 30% of eighth graders have tried alcohol and about half of tenth graders drink. And sadly, teen alcohol use kills around 4,700 people per year, more than all other drugs combined.
The use of other drugs, including marijuana is also on the rise among teens. The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducts an annual survey of high school students and reports that use has been on the increase over the past five years. According to Dr. Wilson, the legalization of medical marijuana has made it easy to obtain, a likely reason for the increase. One common myth among students is that experimenting with marijuana isn’t harmful. But marijuana is almost 10 times more potent than 30-40 years ago, making it much more dangerous. When marijuana has a higher concentration of THC (marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient), the ability to disrupt the normal function of the area of the brain that influences pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination, appetite, pain, and sensory and time perception is even greater. At it’s worst, high doses of marijuana can induce an acute psychosis, like paranoia and/or panic attacks.
Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle. Parents can take preventative steps to discourage drug and alcohol use. Leading by example is a significant way to influence your child to make careful choices when it comes to drugs and alcohol. You can also encourage your child to get involved in healthy activities that build self-esteem and discourage boredom, such as sports, music, clubs, volunteering and other groups.
Dr. Wilson teaches Mira Costa’s PACE program (People Attaining Complete Equality), which brings 20-25 students together in grades 10-12 to help ensure every student can attain a high quality of life. Education on drug and alcohol use is just one aspect of the program, but it’s a crucial one in the South Bay. Over the years, we have witnessed many tragedies related to the use of drugs and alcohol that have shaken our community to the core. PACE helps educate students and celebrate the choice to live without drugs and alcohol. The upcoming Red Ribbon Week will feature an assembly addressing how the choices made today can dramatically affect relationships and the direction life will take you. Simply stated, the purpose of these assemblies is to show that drug and alcohol usage may stop you from accomplishing what you want.
Set Limits and Follow-Up. Dr. Wilson asserts that the most important piece of keeping your family safe is to set clear boundaries and follow through with consequences. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain helps regulate excessive behavior, including drinking, and is still developing well past the teen years. Because of this biological lag time with brain development, teens have an even more difficult time regulating behaviors related to self-discipline, which can easily result in participating in risky behaviors. As parents, you have the capacity to set limits, and to teach your children how to begin to set their own. It’s vital to let your child know there is a behavior you will not accept and that you will follow through. “A parent must be vigilant – most parents don’t find out their child is involved with drugs and alcohol until one year after they started,” says Dr. Wilson. Pay attention – Middle School and High School is the time to be most vigilant and attentive, do not step back, even if your child is asking you to.
The Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Torrance Memorial has a very helpful Parent Resources page with tips on teen parties, teen driving agreements, how to talk to your kids about alcohol and more. Here’s some good pointers from their website:
Parent networking is the best prevention tool to combat underage drinking. Get to know your teen’s friends and their parents. If your teen is planning on going to a party, call the parents to ensure that they will be home and that they will not allow drugs or alcohol. If this is not possible, don’t let your teen go.
Parents are legally responsible for anything that happens to a minor who has been served alcohol or other drugs in their home. If anyone brings alcohol or other drugs to your home, be prepared to contact their parents. And if someone comes to your home already intoxicated, make sure that they get home safely. Help your teen feel responsible for this as well.
Parents may be criminally or civilly liable if…
- Alcohol is provided to a minor at a party they have organized.
- Someone’s property is damaged.
- Someone is injured.
- Someone leaves and gets into a car accident and/or injures someone else.
- Someone dies.
Understand the local laws about alcohol and other drugs. Laws about alcohol and drug use vary from state to state, so make sure you know what the laws are in your state.
If you are hosting a teen party…
- Plan in Advance. Go over party plans with your teen. Encourage your teen to plan non-alcohol-related group activities or games.
- Keep parties small. Ten to 15 teens for each adult. Make sure at least one adult is present at all times. Ask other parents to come over to help you if you need it.
- Set a guest list. The party should be for invited guests only. No “crashers” allowed. This will help avoid the “open party” situation.
- Set starting and ending times for the party. Check local curfew laws to determine an ending time.
- Set party “rules” and your expectations. Discuss them with your teen before the party. Rules should include the following:
- No tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs.
- No one can leave the party and then return.
- Lights are left on at all times.
- Certain rooms of the house are off-limits.
- Have plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages available. Also, put your alcohol and any prescription or over-the-counter medicines in a locked cabinet.
- Be there, but not square. Pick out a spot where you can see what is going on without being in the way. You can also help serve snacks and beverages.
If your teen is going to a party…
- Know where your teen is going and how long he will be there. Have the phone number and address of the party. Ask your teen to call you if the location of the party changes. Be sure to let your teen know where you will be during the party.
- Call the parent of the party host to make sure a parent will be home the entire time and supervising the party. Make sure that tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs will not be allowed.
- Talk with your teen beforehand about how to handle a situation where alcohol is available at a party.
- Make sure your teen has a way to get to and from the party. Make it easy for your teen to leave a party by making it clear that he can call at any time for a ride home. Discuss why he might need to make such a call. Remind your teen NEVER to ride home with a driver who has been drinking or using other drugs.
- Be up to greet your teen when he comes home. This can be a good way to check the time and talk about the evening.
- If your teen is staying overnight at a friend’s house after the party, verify this arrangement with the friend’s parents and that they will be home.
And, in most cases, students will respond in a positive way. The perspective of a few students in the PACE class is clear – talking openly with their parents is welcomed but being lectured at excessively is more likely to create a barrier. Teens themselves realize that there is a fine line between having no rules and having too many. They appreciate education and guidance that builds their confidence – but not the strict rules that take away all independence.
When Support is Necessary. There are times when what we can offer may not be enough. Knowing who to turn to for help can make all the difference. Here are some helpful resources:
- The US Department of Health and Human Services has published a thorough handbook for parents of children ages 10-14 that describes the challenges of underage alcohol use and how to talk to children about them. Make a Difference: Talk to your Child about Alcohol
- For more information on teen binge drinking, the California Governor’s Prevention Advisory Council and Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs have joined together to bring facts and prevention strategies to parents. Preventing Adolescent Binge Drinking
- The Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Torrance Memorial is a highly regarded local resource for parents. The Center is a not-for-profit, hospital-based treatment center offering a full array of programs, from alcohol and drug prevention services and education, to outpatient treatment for adults and teens. A free consultation and screening is the first step.
- If you have concerns that drug or alcohol use is negatively affecting your child, contact his or her high school counselor. The Thelma McMillen Center offers weekly substance abuse counseling at MCHS’s counseling department. A licensed therapist is also available once a week for additional support.
The style and approach that you take with your own children related to drugs and alcohol has to be right for you. Do your research – talk to both peers and professionals, learn from the experience of others, chose a style that fits your family. One thing is clear, you have the greatest impact so make it count.