High school too late to start worrying about alcohol

September 24, 2002|By Susan Reimer

YOU CAN CAPTURE the anxiety of parents of teen-agers in one little word: alcohol.

We are afraid of other things, like pregnancy and car wrecks, but we have come to believe that those disasters are very often a byproduct of alcohol. So, to simplify matters in our cluttered, frightened minds, we worry primarily about alcohol.

Most of us don't begin to seriously worry, though, until our middle-school lambs walk through the doors into Sodom and Gomorrah Senior High.

Anne Chambers believes we are right to worry, but if we only start worrying when they enter high school, we are too late.

Chambers is the founding head of Indian Creek School in Anne Arundel County, a private school with enrollment through the eighth grade. She is revered by faculty, staff and parents - inside her school and out - for her uncanny vision into the hearts and minds of all children, but particularly those on the cusp of adolescence.

A gregarious woman who will talk about kids until someone stops her, Chambers has bolstered her considerable instincts with the kind of research most needed about adolescents: She interviews kids. Almost 4,000 of them so far.

"Everybody talks about teen-agers," she says bluntly. "We would all be better off if we talked to them."

Chambers requires the parents of her eighth-graders to attend a social meeting in the fall, not only to hear her discourse on teen-agers and drinking, but also to meet each other. There is food and time to talk; Chambers believes that only if parents have met will they have the nerve to call one another and check on what their kids are up to.

"You need to know the parents of the kids your kids are hanging out with," she tells them. "Because you need to work as a team."

It is almost easy to keep kids from drinking during middle school. Between school activities and school-sponsored dances, their social lives are controlled and scripted. And they can't drive.

But all of that changes when kids get to high school: Their peer group morphs and expands; they can drive, or they have friends who drive, and, apart from sports, their social lives are no longer school-centered.

And many parents no longer have the nerve to call other parents to ask the important questions: Will adults be at home when the children are there? Will you call me if they leave your house? Will you be serving alcohol?

"Parents throw up their hands," says Chambers. "They don't think they have any control anymore."

Many parents think that kids start drinking because of the bad influences of their peers or as a release from the growing pressure to succeed in high school. But after hundreds of hours of interviews with kids from eighth to 12th grade, Chambers says, "Not true!"

The kids who are drinking in high school started in middle school, she says, and most of them started in their own homes - with a "taste" offered by Mom and Dad. That taste does not trigger some kind of primeval thirst for alcohol, but instead is the first part of a bizarre internal dialogue kids have with themselves.

By the end of this one-sided conversation, teen-agers have given themselves permission to drink. "They tell themselves, `My parents don't mind if I drink. They trust me. We really get along. They think I am mature. They know I can handle it,'" says Chambers.

Parents cannot confuse the message. "We have to be absolutely clear," she says. "We can't assume they know we don't want them to drink."

That's because the next step is forbidding: "No kid drinks less one year than he did the year before," says Chambers, noting her surveys of high school students. "And those who use alcohol in high school don't stop without formal intervention." By that, she means an evaluation by an alcohol rehabilitation center.

"If nothing else, it will scare them to death," she says.

Another of her findings is equally alarming: "A kid who starts to drink will have sex within a year and without a condom," she says. "And the pressure on girls to drink is much greater. Boys who are good-looking or athletes can get away with saying they don't want to drink. Girls are easier to manipulate."

Chambers found that the alcohol- and drug-education programs don't work. They were informative, but the result was informed drinkers. "The kids were all experts about the effects of alcohol," she says. "But they had no idea what to do if someone handed them a drink."

Parents must, literally, hand their children a script. Type it up if they need to. These are the things you say if someone wants you to drink:

"I can't. My father will find out, and he will kill me."

"I can't. My mother will smell it on me, and she will never let me drive again."

"I can't. I have a game tomorrow."

"God, no! Do you know how many calories there are in a beer?"

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