The holiday season is a time of festivities, giving, and reflection. One of the most valuable gifts you can give your child and your community can't be purchased and costs nothing. The ultimate gift is a contribution to a culture change around the use of alcohol. Take the time this season to increase your self-awareness of your own relationship with alcohol and to reflect on how your actions and attitudes shape the actions and attitudes of your children and the children around you.
In our culture, alcohol use has been perceived by many to be a rite of passage for adolescents. But we know more now than we did 20 years ago about how alcohol affects the developing brain. We also know more about the societal and economic costs that stem from alcohol use when it begins in adolescence.
Alcohol impacts a youth differently than an adult because the adolescent brain is still developing. When adolescents consume alcohol, brain development is damaged with both short-term and long-term effects. Because the adolescent brain is still developing, it is also very vulnerable to addiction. Young people who begin drinking before age 17 are twice as likely to develop alcohol dependence as those who begin drinking at age 21. Those who begin by age 15 are more than four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence.
Alcohol kills 6.5 times more youth in this country than all other illegal drugs combined. Having designated drivers or taking away the car keys doesn't make underage drinking safe. Only one-third of underage drinking deaths involve auto crashes. The remaining two-thirds involve alcohol poisoning, homicides, suicides, and unintentional injuries such as burns, drowning, and falls. Other consequences include risk of academic failure and dropping out of school, depression, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and other drug abuse including marijuana, tobacco, and prescription drugs.
The good news is that underage drinking is not an inevitable rite of passage. Contrary to popular belief, a large percentage of kids don't drink. In Piscataquis County, anonymous student surveys show that the many teens—including 51% of 10th graders and 49% of 12th graders – have not consumed alcohol during the past 30 days.
But there are clear and measurable consequences from the underage drinking that is occurring. In 2005, underage drinking cost the state of Maine more than $107 million in direct damages.
And the effects don't stop once an adolescent has become and adult, and they affect us all — not just the user. The 2000 Office of Substance Abuse report, 'The Economic Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Maine,' estimates that the annual cost of substance abuse in Maine was $618 million, including $97.4 million in lost productivity costs.
As a community, we can have a positive impact in reducing underage drinking by:
Setting clear rules and expectations. Research shows that the great majority of kids respond best to clear rules — both from their parents and society at large. For example, studies show that underage youth are significantly less likely to drink alcohol when they believe they'll be caught by police. They're even less likely to drink alcohol when they believe their parents think it would be very wrong for them to do so. It's ok to say, "Underage drinking is illegal, and I don't approve of it. There will be consequences if you engage in underage drinking."
Examining our own use patterns. Do you ask your kids to grab you a drink from the refrigerator? Do you make lighthearted jokes or comments about other people's drinking? Do you consider use of alcohol to be a rite of passage that can't be avoided? Do you assume that alcohol is a necessary part of any celebration or social gathering? Do you model using alcohol as a stress reduction tool? Do you host parties at your house where alcohol is served or available to teens? Does your child observe you drinking more than 2 or 3 drinks on any one occasion?
Modeling is one of the most important actions we can engage in as a community to deter underage drinking. Our behaviors impact our children's attitudes about and future use of alcohol.
As your gift to the community this year, spend a few minutes reflecting on your own relationship with alcohol. Consider the many messages your actions send to your children and other children in the community. Take steps to make sure your children know you don't approve of underage drinking and that there will be consequences if they engage in underage drinking. Increased awareness and examination of our own behavior is the first small but powerful step in truly affecting and impacting addiction in Maine.
A special thanks to 21 Reasons and the Maine Office of Substance Abuse for providing much of the content in this article. For more information go to www.21reasons.org and www.maineparents.net or contact the Piscataquis Public Health Council at 564-4344 for information on how to reduce underage drinking in your community.
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