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Set clear rules about alcohol as your teen heads back to school

Sharon Foster and Michael Langer

As your teen begins a new school year, they will be exposed to exciting new experiences and increased independence. The choices they make now – such as making new friends, trying out for the team, joining a club, or planning for life after high school—will have an impact on their future.

So will the decision whether or not to use alcohol. Before you say “Kids will be kids,” or “I drank alcohol when I was young and I turned out okay,” we urge you to consider these facts about underage drinking:

  • Each year, approximately 5,000 young people in the United States die as a result of underage drinking.
  • Underage drinking puts young people at higher risk for violence, sexual assault, and school failure.
  • In Washington State, about 1 in 7 eighth graders has used alcohol in the past 30 days (2010 Healthy Youth Survey).
  • Youth who begin drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol problems when they get older.
  • Teen alcohol use can damage the areas of the brain that are responsible for learning, memory, decision-making, and good judgment.

The good news is that youth tell us that parents are the No. 1 influence on whether they choose to drink. Adults have the opportunity to help youth choose a safe and healthy path.

Clearly progress has been made. For example, eighth grade use has been cut in half in the past decade. But there is still work to be done.
So what can you do as a parent or other caregiver?

  • Start by talking to your children about alcohol use, from the time they start elementary school through high school and college. For tips on how to start the conversation, visit www.StartTalkingNow.org.
  • When it comes to drinking alcohol, dispel the myth that “everyone is doing it.” While too many youth drink, the fact remains that most youth don’t. When teens know that most of their peers are making good decisions about not drinking alcohol, they are less likely to drink.
  • Make your expectations and rules about alcohol use clear. Set clear consequences, and keep the lines of communication open if they want to talk.
  • Build your child’s self-esteem by giving them words of encouragement each day. With greater self-esteem, your child will be better equipped to withstand peer pressure.
  • Balance freedom with responsibility. Know your teen’s friends, monitor their activities, and be involved in their lives.
  • Set a good example both by what you do and say. Alcohol use is often glamorized by the media, especially in advertisements.

The teen years go by fast, and you don’t want them to miss a moment. Help your child be safe, healthy and productive by talking to them early and often about alcohol use.

To learn more about underage drinking in Washington State, view statistics for your county, and get involved in your community, visit www.StartTalkingNow.org.

Sharon Foster and Michael Langer are co-chairs of the Washington State Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, a coalition of state, local and nonprofit agencies dedicated to reducing underage drinking. Foster is the chair of the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Langer is a behavioral health administrator with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery.