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Teen drinking: A deadly rite of passage

Posted: April 18, 2008 5:12 p.m.
Updated: June 19, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Nationally, the month of April is designated as Alcohol Awareness Month. Alcohol Awareness Month began in 1987 as a way of reaching the American public with information about the disease of alcoholism. The disease of alcoholism affects young and old alike. While I believe education is key to changing behaviors, I don't believe that one month a year is enough education. I truly believe that there are teachable moments every day, especially for our young. I hope you use this column as a tool for one of those teachable moments for you and your teen.

Tales of caution
* It began with a shoulder tap, asking an adult to purchase a fifth of vodka, drinking that vodka at a local movie theater, being disruptive and picked-up by the police for disturbing the peace, landing him in jail. To make matters worse, his disruptive behavior turned into anger as he kicked the windows out of the jail cell he was in, thus adding a felony vandalism charge to his troubles. His legal troubles have just begun.
n Rumors abound in Santa Clarita about the Hart High School Winter Formal this year. A number of teens shared a ride to and from the dance in a rented limousine; but that's not all they shared. Most of them imbibed and shared the liquor found inside the limousine cabinets, getting rip-roaring drunk. Does riding in a private limousine mean underage students should be drinking? The answer is no.

* A dad, father of a local high school football player, began looking for his son when he didn't come home from the party he attended the night before. He found him passed out under the bushes several blocks away, too drunk to respond to his father's voice and touch. So, the paramedics were called to the scene, to find him almost dead from alcohol poisoning.

* One teenager recently told me about drinking 10 shot glasses worth of alcohol at a teen party in a two-hour time period. Another who loves to party, cried as she shared how she drinks, blacks out from her drinking, and has been sexually assaulted while drunk.

n A 21-year-old college student talked about recently celebrating this significant birthday by consuming 21 shot glasses of alcohol - one after another (attempted it in one hour). It's a wonder he's still alive after consuming that much alcohol.

I would rather someone blow out 21 candles, instead of downing 21 drinks. Many think the passage to adulthood is the tradition celebrated with the first drink at midnight. Often, that one drink is shared with parents and family friends and often it is celebrated at a party with many of their own peers. Unfortunately, what is intended to be a tradition can become a deadly rite of passage.

The binge drinking phenomenon is considered a right of passage for both high school and college students, something they do for fun. Yet the consequences of their actions can be life-altering. Binge drinking is like playing Russian roulette, and one last drink can mean death.

Alcohol poisoning is very real and many teens and young adults die from it.

This could be Anytown USA, however the stories I just shared about Santa Clarita youth are real. These stories are all too common and do happen in any town - as evidenced by the tragedy experienced last week by the families of five Newbury Park high school students, who were drinking. One was critically injured, one is dead and two others have severe injuries. One was lucky enough to walk away with just physical scratches but, be assured, the mental scars will be there forever.

What set out to be a fun-filled evening turned into a disaster waiting to happen - that did happen.

Reportedly, the evening began with a Hollywood concert where they began drinking. They continued the party on the Santa Monica Pier, consuming more alcohol and again driving drunk. At the crash site there was more alcohol found in the car. Yes, their poor judgment took its toll. They were underage, so where did they get the booze? Your guess is as good as mine. However, none of them were old enough to purchase the alcohol. Many are to blame for this tragedy - the teens who chose to drink and those who sold the alcohol to them or those who purchased it for them.

The wink and the nod
Sadly, many teens are first presented with alcohol in their own living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens. The wink and the nod when acknowledging fake identifications and selling teens alcohol is just as prevalent. How many of you have ever been "shoulder tapped" at a local liquor store and been asked by a teen to buy alcohol? And how many of you did, thinking it is harmless and teens have the right to party? I know, you told yourself you did it as a kid and you turned out fine.

It only takes a visit to Santa Clarita's Central Park Youth Grove Memorial to see the devastating effects alcohol has had on Santa Clarita youth. Alcohol is a drug, as surely as cocaine and marijuana are, and for many of our country's young people, alcohol is the number one drug of choice. In fact, teens use alcohol more frequently and heavily than all other illicit drugs combined. While some parents may feel relieved that their teen is "only" drinking, it's important to remember that alcohol is a powerful, mood-altering drug.

It's a drug
Yes, April is National Alcohol Awareness Month and the focus is on one of the most critical public health issues in America today, underage drinking. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, alcohol is the number one drug of choice for children and adolescents, and its use is increasing. Each day, more than 7,000 kids in the United States under the age of 16 take their first drink.
The media is saturated with messages that equate alcohol with having a good time. From television and radio to popular teen magazines and the Internet, teens are bombarded with the "It's OK to drink" message.

Unfortunately, no matter what the advertising vehicle is, these ads never show or tell the deadly consequences of teenage alcohol use.

Alcohol is a drug that can affect judgment, coordination and long-term health, and research suggests that early use of alcohol by teenagers may contribute significantly to dependence on alcohol and other drugs later in life. Forty percent of children who begin using alcohol before the age of 13 become alcoholics at some point in their lives.

Alcohol is a factor in the four leading causes of death among persons ages 10-24.

Not only does alcohol affect the mind and body in unpredictable ways, teens lack the judgment and coping skills to handle alcohol wisely.

We know that significant brain development continues through adolescence. A recent study by the National Institute of Health presents the first concrete evidence that heavy alcohol use can impair brain function in adolescents, causing, in many cases, irreversible damage.

Alcohol-related traffic accidents are a major cause of death and disability among teens. Alcohol use is also linked with the deaths of young people by drowning, fire, suicide and homicide.

Teens who use alcohol are more likely to become sexually active at earlier ages, to have sexual intercourse more often, and have unprotected sex more than teens who do not drink.

Young people who drink are more likely than others to be victims of violent crime, including rape, aggravated assault and robbery.

Teens who drink are more likely to have problems with school work and school conduct. An individual who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol.

The message is clear - alcohol use is very risky business for young people. And the longer children delay alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop any problems associated with it.

Your child?
Could your child develop a drinking problem?

Kids at highest risk for alcohol-related problems are those who begin using alcohol or other drugs before the age of 15; have a parent who is a problem drinker or an alcoholic; have close friends who use alcohol and/or other drugs; have current behavioral problems and/or are failing at school; have parents who do not support them, do not communicate openly with them and do not keep track of their behavior or whereabouts.

The more of these experiences a child has had, the greater the chances that he or she will develop problems with alcohol. Having one or more risk factor does not mean that your child definitely will develop a drinking problem. It does suggest, however, that you may need to act now to help protect your youngster from later problems.

Help your child say "no" to drinking. At some point, your child will be offered alcohol. To resist such pressure, teens say they prefer quick "one-liners" that allow them to dodge a drink without making a big scene. It will probably work best for your teen to take the lead in thinking up comebacks to drink offers so that he or she will feel comfortable and confident saying them. To get the brainstorming started, comebacks like, "No thanks, alcohol's not my thing," "I don't feel like it. Do you have any soda?" "Why do you keep pressuring me when I've said no?" will work.

Some parents may suspect that their child already has a drinking problem. While it can be hard to know for sure, certain behaviors can alert you to the possibility of an alcohol problem. Mood changes such as flare-ups of temper, irritability and defensiveness; school problems, including poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action; finding alcohol in your child's room or backpack, or smelling alcohol on his or her breath; switching friends, along with a reluctance to have you get to know the new friends; and a "nothing matters" attitude, for example sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and general low energy, are often clues.

Some parents say that because alcohol is a legal drug, it's hard for them to think of it as being dangerous. Other parents say they find it difficult to talk about alcohol because they drink. It's never too early to start talking with your child about drinking. Some children start asking questions when they are four or five years old. Many parents make the mistake of waiting until their child has begun drinking. However if you listen and respond to your child early on in life, you may be able to prevent problems from developing later.

The road to adulthood isn't an easy one, but when it comes to alcohol and children, it's a dead-end street. If you think your child may be in trouble with drinking, you can protect them from years of pain by seeking advice from a mental health professional specializing in alcohol problems as soon as possible. The life you save may be your child's.

Cary Quashen is a certified addiction specialist and the founder and president of ACTION Parent & Teen Support Programs and the ACTION Family Counseling Centers, which offer drug and alcohol treatment programs for teens and adults. Quashen may be reached at (661) 713-3006. The ACTION hotline number is 1-800-FOR-TEENs. The ACTION Parent & Teen Support Program meets at Saugus High School on Tuesday evenings, beginning at 7:00 p.m. in the Q building.


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