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Cary Quashen: Tween drinking is on the rise, know the facts

It's never too early for parents to talk to tweens about drinking

Posted: August 13, 2009 9:45 p.m.
Updated: August 14, 2009 4:55 a.m.
"My name is Emily and in seven years, I will be an alcoholic. I'll start drinking in the eighth grade. But my parents won't really notice because I'll do OK in school and everything will be OK. But everything won't be OK. Kids who drink before the age of 15 are five times more likely to have alcohol problems when they are adults."

"My name is Brandon and in nine years I will be an alcoholic. I'll start drinking with the older kids and whatever they do, I'll do. I know I will start with alcohol, but I'm not sure how it's going to end."

"If I could have stayed cool, I'd still be drinking. Very quickly, though, I started getting into trouble. Going to sixth grade got in the way of my life, which consisted of getting drunk as much as possible. After rehab, I attended A.A. meetings. Everyone was older, even most of the kids at the young people's meeting," said Tina, who joined A.A. at 13.

Randy got drunk for the first time when he was 9, at a party thrown by one of his older sisters while their parents were away. Randy wandered into the living room and started drinking beer. He also tried his first cigarette and puffed marijuana. Soon after he finished the leftovers of his mother's evening glass of wine, and then began stealing vodka bottles that his father stored in the garage.

If you have a tween, (a child between the ages of 9 to 12 and in the fourth to eighth grade) chances are you haven't even thought about talking to them about drinking - let alone binge drinking. After all, your child has just hit double digits - why worry now about drinking?

However, as a high-risk teen counselor I know that keeping your child from drinking in high school may begin with the chat you have with them when they are in the fourth or fifth grade and every other teachable moment you can find.

In a 2008 study released by the Society for Public Health Education, researchers studying more than 4,000 sixth-grade students found that if a student had smoked marijuana, was from a broken family, or wore alcohol-promotional clothing, he or she was more likely to have had used alcohol by sixth grade. Where do kids that young get liquor?

Many, like Randy, are supplied by older friends or siblings. Others live in households where little or no effort is made to keep alcohol out of kids' hands. In two nationwide surveys sponsored by the American Medical Association underage drinkers (the study polled kids as young as 13) said they found it easy to obtain alcohol from an adult.

Two-thirds said it was easy to get alcohol at home without their parents' finding out - and one-third said they could get it easily with their parents' knowledge.

More facts:

n Today, nearly 10.8 million youth ages 12 to 20 are underage drinkers.

n In any month, more youth are drinking than are smoking cigarettes or using marijuana.

n Approximately 10 percent of 9 to 10-year-olds have started drinking.

n Nearly one-third of youth begin drinking before age 13.

n One out of every two eighth-graders has tried alcohol.

n The first use of alcohol typically begins at age 12.

n Seven in 10 young teens say that alcohol is easy to get.

n Almost half of youth who begin drinking before age 15 later become alcohol-dependent.

While these statistics are alarming, parents can do a lot to help tweens avoid alcohol. Many young people say that parental disapproval of underage drinking is the key reason they have chosen not to drink alcohol.

Most parents don't realize how much influence they have when it comes to changing or improving their children's lives, especially tweens.

Parental involvement can be the safety net that protects tweens from drinking during the preteen years, the years that can be confusing and difficult.

The tween years
As tweens take their first steps from childhood to adulthood they often face a number of challenges. Tweens may find it hard to shift smoothly from elementary to middle school. New friends and settings provide social opportunities but also can create pressure as tweens try to fit in. Physical and emotional changes often bring an urge for independence and new experiences.

Tweens may also begin to think that their base of parental support is weakening, and increasingly they may turn to the media, such as magazines, newspapers, and television, as well as their peers for cues on how to behave.

Set clear rules
According to a national survey, teen perceptions of immorality, harm to health, and parental disapproval are far more powerful deterrents to teen drinking and smoking than legal restrictions on the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes.

Set clear "no use" rules about drinking because children are less likely to drink when parents establish firm "no alcohol" rules.

These rules could include instructions such as:

n Not riding with any friends or peers who have been drinking,

n Not staying at parties where alcohol is being served, and

n Not giving, asking, or taking alcohol from brothers or sisters.

Peer pressure
Tweens usually look for support from three sources - friends, family, and the media. Because a child's friends can have tremendous influence on kids' behavior and decisions, start early teaching your kids how to choose friends wisely. Part of helping kids choose friends is encouraging them to get involved in activities that are interesting, fun, and don't involve alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs.

Parents can also help kids resist pressure to drink by tracking their activities, connecting with other parents, and enforcing a "no alcohol use" rule in the house. In addition, parents can give their children firm guidance on how to say "no." For many kids, knowing how to say "no" is a big part of resisting peer pressure. Help them practice ways to say "no thanks" by starting with these comebacks:

n I don't like it. Do you have a soda?

n Alcohol's not my thing.

n Are you talking to me? Forget it!

n Why do you keep pressuring me when I said no?

n Back off!

Importance of parents
The tween years can be a time of confusion, and tweens may be susceptible to negative influences. However, by building a strong and trusting relationship and by getting involved in the child's life, parents can help protect and guide their child in positive directions. Your time and interest in your children's interests and activities not only add structure and stability to their decisions, but it often helps to reduce confusion.

More importantly, parents can provide skills to help kids resist alcohol and gain the courage to contradict peer pressure and other negative influences. Start talking before they start drinking.

Cary Quashen is a certified addiction specialist and the founder and president of ACTION Parent & Teen Support Programs and ACTION Family Counseling Centers. Quashen can be reached at (661) 713-3006. The ACTION Parent & Teen Support Group Meetings meets at Saugus High School, Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. in the Q building, 21900 Centurion Way in Saugus. The ACTION 24-hour hotline is 1-800-FOR-TEENs.


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