Recent reports on underage drinking in the United States reveal good news and bad news. On the bright side, the National Institute on Drug Abuse announced in June that its "Monitoring the Future" survey shows decreasing use of alcohol among 8th through 12th graders. However, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confirms alcohol is still the most widely misused substance among America's youth.
As kids head back to school in Tennessee -- a time when new friends and experiences await -- it's important for parents to talk regularly, and effectively, with them about the overwhelming dangers of underage drinking.
To begin, consider a "talk early, talk often" approach to the topic with children. Experts say having lots of small discussions about alcohol across time (beginning as early as nine years old) rather than one big talk is more effective and less intimidating for everyone. Try mentioning the subject in the car when a song on the radio mentions reckless drinking or during a television show or movie where the issue enters the storyline. Ask your child about his or her thoughts on the situation. When both sides are naturally tuned in to the moment, your child is less likely to tune you out.
Also, have the facts on your side when discussions occur. SAMHSA data show that every day in the U.S., more than 4,750 kids under age 16 have their first full drink of alcohol, and more than 4,300 deaths related to underage drinking happen each year. Underage drinking can also contribute to the likelihood of risky sexual behavior, harmful changes in brain development, misuse of other illegal drugs and injuries. And, someone who starts drinking before age 15 is nearly five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence later in life.
Remember, all these talks and stats won't mean much to a child if you aren't communicating clearly and leading by example. Let your son or daughter know early on what you expect of their behavior in regard to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. If you decide to drink, model responsibility by doing so only in moderation and not driving after you have been drinking. Your open discussions and mature behavior surrounding the topic will have a positive impact. Research shows that parents are the top reason young people decide not to drink.
Finally, never feel alone in your mission to educate a child about the dangers of underage drinking. National organizations like those mentioned above offer online resources to parents. Here in Tennessee, the Prevention Services team at Centerstone created a new comic book, Spark: The Sobering Truth, to start healthy conversations in schools among students (see WhoYouWant2Be.org/comic).
Working together, we can help young people shape a safer, smarter school year ahead.
Ashleigh Hall is a Prevention Services Coordinator for Centerstone (www.centerstone.org) and a Certified Prevention Specialist II with 16 years of experience working with children and their families.