A study came out this week showing that 7th graders who were exposed to alcohol ads -- and liked them -- were more likely to have problems with alcohol in high school.
Let's be honest: When was the last time you talked about alcohol ads with your kids? I don't mean in a "Wow, that was a cool ad they had on during the Super Bowl," kind of way. I mean in a, "Wow, they really make drinking alcohol look cool, don't they? But drinking alcohol can really get people into lots of trouble -- let's talk about it" kind of way.
I'm going to bet most of you haven't.
Overall, the news when it comes to teens and alcohol is pretty good. Compared with 20 years ago, fewer teens drink alcohol. But still, a lot of them are drinking. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, two-thirds of high-schoolers have ever had a drink, a third of them drink regularly and a fifth of them binge drink. Alcohol is responsible for more adolescent deaths than all other drugs combined.
I feel like the response of parents is often either "Not my kid," or "I was wild when I was younger and I turned out OK, she'll be fine." My response to either one is this: What if you are wrong? Do you really want to take the chance?
Parents can make all the difference when it comes to preventing underage and dangerous drinking by their kids. Here are four things you can do:
Talk. Talk about the ads -- there are lots of them -- and why they are appealing, and what the truth is when it comes to alcohol. Talk about what they see in TV shows and movies. Talk when there is a car accident related to alcohol -- there are lots of those too. Have an ongoing dialogue. Start by middle school. Not only is that when the exposure can really start, both in the media and socially, but in middle school, they still talk to you. While setting rules and expectations and enforcing them is important, it's also important that you say more than: "Don't drink." That's a real conversation-stopper. Ask about what their friends are saying and doing; talk about peer pressure, role-play what they might do if offered alcohol. Help them understand that once kids start drinking together, things get dicey and dangerous.
Be an involved parent. Not a helicopter one -- that's not good for anyone. But make sure you at least touch base every day. Go to the school open house and to teacher conferences and games and other events (volunteer to be a coach or chaperone). Support them in school and in other activities -- the more successful they are in and out of school, the less likely they are to get into trouble with substance abuse. When your kid goes out, ask where they are going and with whom. Get to know your kids' friends -- the biggest risk factor for underage drinking, it turns out, is having a best friend who drinks. Get to know the parents of those friends. (You don't have to be creepy about it, just friendly). If you do all this, not only are you more likely to pick up on a problem, but you also send a really clear message that your child, and their life, really matters to you.
Some parents think that they can "teach" their children to drink moderately, or that letting them drink in their house with their supervision is a good idea. Besides the fact that it's breaking the law to let underage kids drink in your home, the simple truth is that because of where they are developmentally, you can't be sure they won't binge drink elsewhere.
Be a good role model. The second biggest risk factor for underage drinking? A family history of dysfunctional drinking. I'm not just talking about alcoholism here, although that can run in families. I'm also talking about the message you send when alcohol is a big part of your social life, especially if your social life involves getting drunk. Kids always pay more attention to what we do than to what we say. If you want your child to have good judgment about alcohol, show it yourself.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. Parenthood is really hard work, and all of us need help sometimes. If you are worried that your child may be using alcohol in risky ways, you don't need to handle it alone. There are people who can help, like your child's doctor, or school guidance counselor. Here at Boston Children's we have a really great program called the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) that helps teens and their families through substance abuse problems.
For more information on preventing underage drinking, visit Teen Safe, which has lots of great resources for parents, and the website of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire