Alerting teens to alcohol's dangers Drinking: Parents should not underestimate their influence on the behavior of their children.

Family Matters

May 24, 1998|By Barbara F. Meltz | Barbara F. Meltz,BOSTON GLOBE

When Meghan Riley goes to the prom later this month, in addition to the obvious investments her parents will have made - new dress, new purse, new shoes - there's a less tangible one that's been accruing interest for years.

"We've been having conversations about drinking off and on since she was a freshman," says her mother, Trudy. "We trust her to choose not to drink."

This is not the first time the Rileys or any other parents of a teen are sending their child out the door to go someplace where they know there will be drinking; researchers say alcohol use is common among high school students nationwide. But the prom is the biggest social event on a teen-ager's calendar, an all-night affair that mixes drinking and driving.

Drinking is a learned behavior and not nearly so much the result of peer pressure as parents believe, says University of Pittsburgh psychologist John Donovan, who researches teen drinking. He says our own drinking behavior and whether we talk to our children about drinking is a far bigger influence than peers.

"The more communication, warmth and support you show in general, the more a child absorbs your values about everything, including drinking," he says. It acts like insulation against peer and societal influences. Given how pervasive alcohol advertising the more insulation the better, he adds.

Two early messages

Start when your child is 7 or 8, says child and adolescent psychiatrist Lynn Ponton, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The author of "The

Romance of Risk, Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do" (Basic Books), she says there are two messages to convey at this age:

* That alcohol is not like anything else you drink, that it makes people act differently, usually stupidly;

* That adults can drink a little and be OK, but that you have to be an adult to have the ability to make that judgment.

The drinking adults model can be problematic, of course.

"When kids see adults they love drinking, they figure it's OK on some level, even if it's too much, even if they hate what it does to you," says psychologist Michael Nakkula of Harvard University, who researches risk and prevention among teens. Studies show that children of alcoholics are at risk for alcoholism not only because of a genetic predisposition but also because of their socialization to it.

For even young children, drinking represents adulthood. "The typical child absorbs the reasons why you drink and will mimic those reasons," says Donovan. "If you drink when you're frustrated, that increases the likelihood that sometime when he's feeling the same way, even at 11 or 12, it will occur to him to do the same thing. If you drink with friends, he'll see this as the way adults have fun."

False security

Is it possible to teach a child to drink safely?

Researchers say no. Indeed, longitudinal studies show that the younger a child is when she's introduced to alcohol, including supervised tastes with a parent, the more likely it is she will have drinking problems later on.

"It gives a false sense of security," says Nakkula. "The 'practice' they've had makes them not fear it, so they're more likely to think, 'Oh, I can handle this,' and have a second or third. It might even make him an expert - 'My dad's taught me about beer' - or give him status among peers: 'John knows how to make White Russians.' "

Simply saying no, however, is as ineffective as handing your child a glass of wine whenever you have one. " 'No' without explanation gives a teen something to rebel against," says Nakkula.

A typical child drinker starts in seventh or eighth grade. It's usually a boy, often a latchkey kid who lacks a good male role model and wants to feel more grown up, says Ponton. One day after school, two or three friends try it. The next week, they try it again. Six months later, they're addicted: Children's body chemistry is so different from adults', it takes only six months of two or three beers two or three times a week for that to happen.

The pattern among high school drinkers tends to be different. Ponton says they're more likely to binge, drinking 14 or 15 beers in a few hours, usually at a party.

Perhaps what's most shocking for parents is how prevalent alcohol is in teen-agers' lives, says Patricia Hersch, the parent of a high school senior and an author who spent three years following eight teen-agers and chronicled it in a recently published book, "A Tribe Apart" (Fawcett Columbine).

"Not all kids are drinkers [nationally, 35 to 40 percent are not] but the social life all of them participate in occurs with drugs and alcohol available all the time,"

Hersch says. Nakkula calls drinking "normative, common, not the exception," more common among suburban than urban teens.

With such staggering statistics, Hersch says, it's safer to suspect your child might be a drinker and to be on the alert than to assume he isn't and be in denial.

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