Dear Dr. Wes & Marissa: As you know, teenage drinking at school dances and activities has been a problem for a long time and is getting worse. What advice would you give to kids and parents about this issue, regarding safety and good decision-making?
- 17-year-old girl
Wes: I'd like to say "don't drink at all," but you're expecting a more enlightened answer. Before I go there, please let me preach just one little sermon. All the recent research is clear: Alcohol use in adolescence leads to long-term damage to the brain. This goes way beyond the impact on adult brains for one simple reason: Teen brains aren't done developing yet and won't be until about age 22. That puts brain development at risk. The heavier the use, the greater the risk. This research is not politically motivated or government propaganda to get you to behave. For most teens, keeping the brain fresh and healthy is not at the top of the list of fun stuff to consider, so these facts tend to go unnoticed. However, I'll post some of the links at www.ftimidwest.com for you to review.
For parents, the realization that your kid may be causing brain damage does not translate into a 24-hour vigil to avoid any contact with demon rum. It calls for exactly what you propose: some serious safety precautions and sensible decision-making. The first thing for parents to consider is their own substance use. Research suggests that our kids will follow the patterns we set at home. So, if you want drunk kids, drink a lot yourself. If you want kids who show respect for alcohol, be sure you treat it likewise. Kids go where parents send them. Be careful where you send them.
I also favor drinking-and-driving contracts. Parents should agree to come to any place necessary to bring their teen home in the event of intoxication. This doesn't mean that drinking teens gets off scot-free. However, I recommend moderate consequences in such situations, versus incredibly severe ones when drunk driving is involved. I've seen parents sell a kid's car after one occurrence. Of course, when calling in the rescue squad becomes a habit, parents must consider stiffer measures.
As for "safe drinking" (and I use that term reluctantly), I am alarmed when I hear Lawrence party stories in which Miss X passed out in the bathroom and threw up nine times while no one did anything. In such situations, kids must consider alcohol poisoning, rather than assuming X just needed to sleep it off. Here are some signs teenagers should clip and stick in their wallets:
¢ Miss X cannot be awakened.
¢ She has cold, clammy hands.
¢ She has unusually pale or bluish skin.
¢ Her breathing is slow or irregular - less than eight times a minute - or 10 seconds or more passes between any two breaths.
¢ She vomits while passed out and does not wake up during or after vomiting.
If any of these things happen, call 911 immediately. Do not consider the legal ramifications of your situation. Do not leave the person alone. Continue trying to revive them. Turn them on their side so that if they do vomit they will be less likely to choke on it, which is how a lot of people die in such situations. Watch their breathing closely. If they stop breathing, perform CPR. If you don't know how, find someone who does. Hoping for the best won't save anyone.
So how can a party full of drunken people do any of these things? They probably can't. We've long suggested the "designated driver" as a way to keep people safe in the car. I suggest that some people at a party be designated as the Sober Patrol and take care of everyone else.
Of course, the obvious suggestion would be to drink only in moderation - or not at all. However, too often that suggestion goes unheeded, so it is important to consider what to do when drinking gets out of hand.
Marissa: Let me don my Super-Sobriety Girl cape yet again. You're right, it's a very well-known fact that teenagers are drinking, and there are going to be inherent dangers and effects that are imposed on everyone because of it.
The first thing you can do to protect yourself - and one of the most important, in my opinion - is to make sure that you are not riding to an event with someone who has intentions to drink, even if it's just a little bit. You never want to ride with someone who has been drinking, and you don't want to be left without a ride if they don't stay sober.
This also brings up the issue of keeping your friends and acquaintances from driving after they have been drinking. For some reason, the numerous Public Service Announcements and school fliers are still not breaking through to students. I know there are kids who are still driving after they have been drinking or using drugs.
The fact of the matter is, whether you feel capable of driving, if something happens, you are going to be in a tough spot for a long time. Something like that changes your life for forever. There's no going back once you've hurt someone. Even if you only wrecked a car, you're still bringing expensive and serious legal consequences upon yourself. Good luck explaining that one to your parents.
Aside from that, as Wes mentioned earlier, if you are going to a function where alcohol is available, it's important to make sure you bring along someone who is also not drinking. It's hard to be the sole person responsible for taking care of your drunken friends, but it's a worthwhile endeavor to ensure that your friends stay safe.
For parents, you are not doing anything but your job by having really strict rules about alcohol use. Even if you receive no gratitude for hounding your teen on the "when, where, why, with whom" questions, it is for their own good, and someday your children will, more than likely, come to see that.
The rate of alcohol use among teens is enough to make you wish Prohibition had worked. Since it didn't, and alcohol in this town is readily available, it will be something that we will inevitably always have to deal with. Choosing not to drink, though, will give you more pride than joining everyone else in the drunken festivities ever will.
Next week: A parent asks how to manage sexually active teens without alienating them.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Marissa Ballard is a Lawrence High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.