by Christel Swasey
According to the CDC, alcohol consumption is associated with about 75,000 deaths per year. Every year. Probably every future year, too.
Since 1988, every state in the U.S. prohibits the purchase of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21. However, current alcohol use among high school students remained pretty steady, and the 2009 statistics state that 24% of high school students report episodic binge drinking.
Alcohol is a factor in 41% of deaths from car crashes. Alcohol is being used by more teens in the United States than tobacco or illicit drugs are used. Among youth, the use of alcohol and other drugs is linked to injuries, fights, academic problems, and all kinds of illegal behavior.
But wait, there’s more: long-term alcohol misuse causes liver disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurological damage, not to mention a myriad of social and psychiatric problems. Alcohol and drug use by teen parents contribute to infants’ deaths. And alcohol often links users to drugs, which contributes directly (and indirectly) to the HIV epidemic.
As the mother or stepmother of three teenagers, I worry about statistics like this. Even though we teach our children to abstain from alcohol completely, there are risks. Our teens could choose to use alcohol or drugs despite our counsel, and our teens’ peers can use alcohol or drugs, and then drive —with our kids in their cars.
One of my professors in college did a study that shocked him. He studied teens’ observing anti-alcohol and anti-drug advertisements, and he learned that most of the teens did not notice the anti-part of the ad. They just noticed that kids were modeling smoking and drinking. And they took it as a sort of subtle permission to try it, too.
Sometimes we think that by saying, “Don’t do this” we are teaching our kids well, but be careful! Sometimes “don’t do this” is like saying, “Don’t think about a pink giraffe tapdancing on a green pillow.” How are teens not going to picture it, or think it’s okay to consider it, when someone says it– even if it’s preceded by the word “Don’t”?
When my friend’s father told her his drinking story, (when my friend was a teenager) it had the exact opposite effect from what he had hoped. Her father warned her never to start drinking. He told her that when he was her age, he’d experimented with alcohol and ended up becoming a problem drinker. It took a lot of hard falls and run-ins with the law to turn him around. But do you think my friend listened?
When she was offered alcohol by peers, not long after the father’s warning, she drank it. She actually used his warning as permission, feeling that if her father could experiment and still turn out all right, so could she. She took his example as a kind of permission to try it out. Now, with her own kids, she never tells them a word about her high school experimentation with alcohol. And she has sworn her old high school friends to secrecy.
She’s scared that her own teen daughters will follow the unhappy example that she and her father forged. So she keeps it quiet. I think she’s smart.
I never drank as a teenager, and I will tell my kids that good news. I am hoping they’ll take it as permission to be courageous and not to drink, when their peers invite them to imbibe.
So, before you tell your kids, “Don’t do this; I did it and it wasn’t good,” think again. Will you really, truly be helping them by sharing your story, or are you just trying to confess your guilt? Is it good or necessary to shove our worst stories in front of our kids? Why do we do that as parents?
It’s worth thinking about.
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