Fall weather brings high school football, homecoming dances and parties to thousands of teens in the metroplex. Parents of freshman students are especially excited as fall season tends to open up more of a social chapter in their teen's life. I recently sat down with Pam Blankenship, Executive Director of CARE Dallas (Chemical Awareness Resources & Education) to get a feel for how a teen and their family should openly talk about party culture.
Q: Do you find that many parents of 8th graders help their children transition to freshman year of high school without having any conversation about alcohol?
PB: Many parents do not talk to their children in the 8th grade about alcohol and many teens begin to experiment with alcohol during the 8th grade. Most of the time they consume alcohol from their parents or at a friends home. I encourage parents to talk with their teen about alcohol as early as elementary school and build on the conversation during the transition years of 8th to 9th grade. Parents should discuss the rules of their household regarding alcohol. When parents establish clear “no alcohol” rules and expectations, their children are less likely to begin drinking. Each family should develop agreements about teen alcohol use that reflect their own beliefs and values, some possible family rules about drinking are:
- Kids will not drink alcohol until they are 21.
- Older siblings will not encourage younger brothers or sisters to drink and will not give them alcohol.
- Kids will not stay at teen parties where alcohol is served.
- Kids will not ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
Q. What are the three most important brain science facts that parents should know about alcohol and a teen brain ?
PB: The brain is a complex organ but we do know a few things about the teen brain and drinking. First, the teen brain does not have a full developed prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that controls things like making choices between right and wrong and predicting the probable outcome of actions or events. When alcohol is used by a teenager it can keep this part of the brain from developing fully. Second, because it is not as developed as an adult’s brain it also enables the teen to make poor choices. It is one of the reasons that teens continue to drink even when they are legally drunk. A teen actually doesn’t feel drunk like an adult does. The third fact about alcohol and the brain is that a portion of the brain that shrinks when alcohol is used by teens is the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that is used for memory and learning new things. Alcohol use doesn’t cause teens to forget the things they have already learned, but it does impair them from learning new things.
Q. What are key questions that parents should ask of the host family when they drop their teen off at a party?
PB: Questions to ask the host family include – will there be adults at the party? Will the adults be visible and available during the party? Is alcohol being served? Are the parents checking teens’ purses and bags for alcohol? Will parents observe the teens before they leave the party to go home? Will teens be coming and going from the party throughout the evening? Teens that leave a party and return are often retrieving alcohol or other drugs that they have hidden in the yard or alley. One of the things we suggest at CARE is that every family have a code word or phrase the teen can use to say to their parents when they want to be picked up early from a party or social event. I know if my teen daughter calls or texts me to ask about “Aunt Janet’s health” it is time for me to pick her up from the party.
Q. What would you say to parents who hold onto the myth that their child is 'safe' to experiment with alcohol at home before going off to college?
PB: It is a common phrase that parents use – I want my child to learn how to drink at home. What we know today is that teens don’t drink to socialize like adults do, they drink to get drunk. Drinking can be dangerous. One of the leading causes of teen deaths is motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol. Drinking also makes a young person more vulnerable to sexual assault and unprotected sex. And while your teen may believe he or she wouldn’t engage in hazardous activities after drinking, alcohol impairs judgment, and a teen drinker is very likely to think such activities won’t be dangerous. If one or more members of your family has suffered from alcoholism, your child may be more vulnerable to developing a drinking problem. Alcohol affects young people differently than adults. Drinking while the brain is still maturing may lead to long-lasting intellectual effects and may even increase the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence later in life. Teaching children to drink at home really enables them to rationalize drinking away from home
CARE Dallas offers several resources on their website www.care-dallas.org Continue to broaden your scope of communication with your teen regarding alcohol and drugs.
The more you talk to your child about this subject, the more prepared your teen will be when they need your opinion or want to reach out to you for help.