The headlines are full of tragic stories about the alarming rise in deaths involving prescription drugs and heroin. Teen use of marijuana and nicotine is also on the rise.
What many parents don’t realize is that alcohol is a drug — an addictive drug as dangerous for kids as other drugs. It is the most common drug used by middle and high schoolers. More youth use alcohol than tobacco (either smoked or vaped) or other illicit drugs.
The use of alcohol or any other drug is especially risky for children and teens because it disrupts the amazing process of brain development that begins around age ten and continues into the mid-twenties. The younger a child is when the use begins, the greater the risk of harm.
Research shows that young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence and alcohol addiction. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes a person to compulsively seek out their drug of choice despite the bad consequences of doing so. While beginning to use is a free choice, once an addiction develops people cannot stop using, even if they want to, without treatment and a lifelong commitment to continued recovery after treatment.
A young person’s body cannot handle alcohol the same way an adult’s body can. Alcohol use can disrupt the normal development of both the chemical functions and physical structures of the brain. Alcohol affects the ability of nerve cells of the brain to communicate by altering the actions of two major neurotransmitters. The normal development of the brain’s risk-and-reward system is hijacked, turning the brain’s seeking of reward from relationships with parents and peers, success and achievement, participation in hobbies and sports or other pleasurable activities to only feeling pleasure by increasing alcohol use.
Two of the physical structures of the brain particularly sensitive to alcohol use are the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning. Studies have shown that heavy-drinking adolescents have a smaller hippocampus and often show deficits in memory and learning. The pre-frontal lobe is important for rational thinking, planning, learning, judgment, decision-making and impulse control. Damage to the pre-frontal cortex during its development can have long-term consequences for a young person’s memory, personality and behavior.
Alcohol use is dangerous in other ways. Young people who drink are more likely to be victims of violent crime, be involved in alcohol-related car crashes and have serious school-related issues. Drinking and drugged driving is the number-one cause of death, injury and disability of young people under the age of 21. Nearly 40 percent of traffic fatalities are alcohol related. Alcohol or drug use is a factor in four out of five teen encounters with the juvenile justice system.
Alcohol is strongly linked to violence, rape and sexual assault. Each year, more than 600,000 college students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. Ninety-five percent of all violent crime on college campuses involves the use of alcohol by the assailant, victim or both.
Earlier age of first use of alcohol and binge drinking or drinking heavily increases the risk of both developmental damage and other negative consequences. Binge drinking is having five or more alcoholic drinks for men or four or more alcoholic drinks for women on the same occasion or within a few hours of each other. Heavy alcohol use is binge drinking on five or more days in the past month. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2015 about 1.4 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 reported binge drinking within the past month. An estimated 39 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 were binge alcohol users. While the overall number of young drinkers is trending downward, two thirds of current underage drinkers are binge alcohol drinkers, putting them at grave risk for experiencing alcohol-related harms.
Use Your Influence
The good news is that you as a parent or guardian have more influence than you think on your children’s decisions about drinking. According to SAMHSA, parents are the number-one reason young people decide not to drink. SAMHSA recommends starting to talk to your children about alcohol before they actually start drinking — as early as nine years old. They suggest five strategies to use in engaging your kids.
1. Show you disapprove of underage drinking. Over 80 percent of young people ages 10 to 18 say their parents are the leading influence on their decision to drink or not drink. Therefore, it’s important that you send a clear and strong message.
2. Show you care about your children’s happiness and well-being. Young people are more likely to listen when they know you’re on their side. Try to reinforce why you don’t want your children to drink — not just because you say so, but because you want your kids to be happy and safe.
3. Show that you’re a good source of information about alcohol. You want your children to have reliable information to be making informed decisions about drinking. Your kids should not be learning about alcohol from friends, the internet or the media. Establish yourself as a trustworthy source of information.
4. Show that you’re paying attention and you’ll notice if your children drink. You want to demonstrate you’re keeping an eye on your children, because young people are more likely to drink if they think no one will notice.
5. Build your children’s skills and strategies for avoiding underage drinking. To prepare your children to resist peer pressure, you’ll need to build skills and practice them.
Check out the SAMHSA underage drinking prevention program, “Talk, they hear you” to help you address underage alcohol use with your children at https://www.samhsa.gov/underage-drinking/parent-resources.
Many young people (and adults) overestimate the prevalence of drinking, which can make teen drinking seem like normal behavior. This leads to poor decision making by both teens and adults, especially adults who misguidedly think that providing a “safe” location for their kids and their friends to drink and “keeping the keys” is a good idea. Remember that providing alcohol to your kids’ underage friends is illegal with either civil or criminal exposure for the adult, depending on the state or municipality in which you live. Enabling teenage drinking is always a bad idea and does nothing but increase their risk of suffering negative consequences from alcohol use.
The two most important things to remember are that even when your children appear not to listen or be receptive to what you are saying, you are the single most powerful influence on their choices, and that if your children surround themselves with peers who are making good choices about alcohol and other drugs, then your children will make better choices as well. So, empower yourself, get the facts, talk to your kids and raise a generation of safe, healthy, happy young adults.
Laura Search, MN, APRN, PPCNP-BC, is a former president of NAPNAP and has more than 25 years of experience in clinical practice, nursing leadership, health policy and advocacy with a focus on pediatric primary care, child and adolescent injury prevention, substance abuse prevention and government affairs. She is a founding member of the Cobb Community Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse (CCAPSA) and a frequent presenter on issues related to the prevention of youth use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.