Recently, I've heard stories about teens in the storybook suburban town where I live drinking so much alcohol in the safety of their friends' homes that they nearly died of alcohol poisoning. In both cases, the kid who overindulged was the last one you'd expect: the perfect student, the "good" one, the shy kid.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the drinking habits of approximately 278,000 women 18 and older, as well as 7,500 high school girls in 2011. Their findings: half of all high school girls who consume alcohol reported binge drinking, with binge drinking defined as consuming four or more drinks in one sitting. Binge drinking contributes to the deaths of about 12,000 women and girls each year in the United States, according to their study.
If you're shaking your head right now, thinking not my kid/niece/grandkid/friend's daughter -- she's a "good" girl/straight A student/perfect kid -- think again.
Being a golden kid creates its own kind of stress, and shy kids who don't socialize much can suffer from social anxiety. That first taste of booze, with its melting away of inhibitions, can seem like a magic bullet to an introverted person.
Take it from me: I was one of them -- a shy, straight-A-student; an overly controlled girl who didn't drink until college. And then I went crazy, passing out more than once because I had no experience with hard liquor, or alcohol of any kind.
No one ever gave me the drinking talk, because who would think I needed it?
All kids need the drinking talk, and earlier than you think. Even if they're not drinking themselves, they need to know what to do if someone else drinks too much; that it's OK to call an adult or 911 if they're with someone who has overdosed on alcohol. Often, kids get scared they're going to get in trouble, and those crucial moments when they're hemming and hawing could be the difference between saving a life or not.
If you never teach your teenager about the effects of hard alcohol on the body, how are they going to learn? Even if you don't condone underage drinking, it's important to explain the science of alcohol poisoning.
According to the CDC, those who are most at risk for binge drinking are white and Hispanic women, ages 18-34, high school girls and women with household incomes over $75,000.
The issue I have with in-school programs, such as DARE (which has since been stopped in our area) is that they mostly urge kids to resist alcohol, to "Just Say No." But what if you, or someone around you, says yes (and this is highly likely, given the CDC's latest findings, and also given the makeup of the teenage brain).
Here is my own list of things I think tweens and teens should know. Some of these seem obvious, but if they were so obvious, teenagers wouldn't be going to the hospital in droves to have their stomachs pumped. Of course, some kids will be self-destructive even if they're armed with information, but I'd like to think that knowledge is power. Schools are reluctant to share this kind of information because it seems like they're condoning underage drinking, but I think they're making a mistake here (or perhaps I don't understand our litigious culture).
Before you give the talk, you can emphasize that you're not in favor of underage drinking, and that it can mess up your ability to mature socially, because alcohol can become a crutch. It also interferes with developing brain cells. However, they might find themselves in a situation where they, or others around them, are drinking.
This is what they need to know:
1) Vodka and hard liquor are not equal to beer or wine. If you pour yourself a glass of vodka equivalent to your mother's glass of wine, you will most likely pass out.
2) A shot is 1.5 ounces of liquid. OK, that's well and good, but how much is that? You need a visual. Show them what a shot glass looks like, and then show them that same amount poured into a wine glass or a beer mug, or a plastic party cup.
3) Please do not chug hard liquor from the bottle, even if you think it looks cool.
4) Don't let anyone give you a drink or make you a drink, unless you are watching them. You need to know what you're drinking.
5) It's OK to go to a party and just hold a beer and pretend you're drinking it if you feel self-conscious. Just because you don't drink doesn't mean you can't socialize.
6) If you are a girl and weigh 110 pounds, you cannot drink as much as a guy weighing 150 pounds. Period.
7) Never drink and drive. Never get in a car with someone who is drinking and driving. Call for a ride home -- no questions asked. I will drive your friends home, too.
8) If someone offers you "grain alcohol" punch or Everclear, steer clear. It's tasteless, and will make you blind drunk very quickly.
9) If you are with someone whose has had way too much to drink (eyes are rolling in their head and they are passed out or about to pass out) immediately call an adult or 911. They need to go to the emergency room. Do not let embarrassment or the fear of getting in trouble prevent you from making the call. You will not get in trouble. You will have saved a life.
And last but not least, it's important to be aware that you are a role model for your kids. This is not to preach that you shouldn't drink -- just be mindful of your drinking. A recent study found that women 45-64 are drinking their teenage children under the table. Teens may be more likely to binge drink, but older women tend to drink every day.
Leah Odze Epstein is the co-editor of Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press). Her essay in the book is about growing us as the daughter of an alcoholic mother.