Helping teens say no to alcohol

"The key to drug-proofing youngsters is to foster an open, honest relationship … from early on in life."

By: Judy Shepps Battle
   It isn’t easy to be a teen. As many as half of all adolescents report significant feelings of depression and angst during these turbulent years. In their words, they experience "inner turmoil" or simply "feel miserable." It may come as no surprise, then, that a large percentage of adolescents experiment with alcohol and other drugs.
   For some, drinking is related to peer pressure and not wanting to be different from one’s friends. For others, it represents "trying out" an adult behavior as part of the transition from child to adult. But for those with painful inner conflicts (sexual identity, self-image, feeling misunderstood), alcohol use may be a means of relief.
   Whatever the reason, we know that consumption of alcohol is a significant part of the teen experience and may begin as early as pre-adolescence. The latest national study indicates that:
   · By the time a youngster reaches eighth grade, nearly half have had at least one drink. One in five eighth graders reports having been drunk at least once.
   · Among 12th graders, more than one-third of males and one-fourth of females report binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion in the previous two weeks). It’s estimated that half of all high school seniors consume alcohol at least once a month.
   · Nearly four of every five students have consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) by of the time they are out of high school.
   Unfortunately, the combination of alcohol and teenagers is not a healthy mix.
   Not only is consumption of alcohol a contributing factor in the top three causes of death (accidents, homicide and suicide) among adolescents, but young brains are more vulnerable than mature ones to the effect of alcohol on learning and memory. Additionally, brain damage and long-lasting cognitive deficits have been associated with heavy drinking during early and mid-adolescence.
   Dr. Utpal (Paul) S. Shah, board-certified pediatrician and member of the pediatrics department at University Medical Center at Princeton, stresses the serious nature of teenage drinking:
   "The long-term effects of alcohol on a growing and developing body can be much more significant than just the current effects that a youngster might feel. Alcohol abuse can do permanent damage to the central nervous system. The effects that you can’t see today may show up later, such as how your brain functions in completing tasks and remembering," he says.
   Compounding the danger of this situation is that teens tend not to experience the same symptoms, such as lack of coordination or sleepiness, as adults who drink to excess. This deceptive lack of cautionary signals means that a teen may continue to drink to an impaired status without realizing it.
   "Even the short-term effects can be serious," explains Dr. Shah. "A youth riding his or her bicycle home after consuming alcohol could become involved in a serious accident by failing to navigate a curb or not being able to calculate the closeness of an oncoming car."
   Dr. Shah believes that parents can help their teens resist peer pressure to drink alcohol by having discussions about alcohol, tobacco and other drug use long before the possibility of usage arises."The key to drug-proofing youngsters is to foster an open, honest relationship about a variety of topics, including sex and drugs, from early on in life. When children have an open dialogue with their parents, there is less chance of their doing things that would embarrass or endanger themselves, and that includes abusing alcohol."
   Parents can teach their kids a variety of strategies for "just saying no" to the peer pressure of having a beer or sampling hard liquor.
   "Youngsters can change the subject. They can walk away. They can say, ‘I have tried that before and I had a bad experience’ or ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I am allergic,’" suggests Dr. Shah. "Peer pressure can be a difficult thing to overcome, but a parent has the power to instill confidence in a child to not be afraid to do the right thing; to be able to say ‘Look, I know better,’ and not be afraid of being teased and called names."
   Dr. Shah also sees the important role the pediatrician plays in preventing alcohol use and abuse.
   "Before such abuse begins, in the late elementary school years, I talk with the parents about the kinds of open discussions they are having with their children. Later, when children are in around the fifth grade, we start to discuss sex, drugs, friendships and any emotional difficulties they may be having after their regular well-visit physical exams. In our practice, we block out roughly a half hour per patient for these occasions."
   But Dr. Shah is quick to add that he is but a small link in the educational efforts that are needed to help kids navigate adolescence unharmed.
   "Pediatricians have a role in educating patients. But my once-a-year visit with a 10-year-old patient is hardly enough time. I think the education has to come from school and from the parents. It is definitely my job to remind the parents to have this kind of discussion, but I think that the majority of education should be going on at home."