Sadly, most traffic deaths happen during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and the New Year, usually between 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Many of these involve 15- to 20-year-olds and are alcohol-related. In fact, out of all individuals involved in drunk-driving accidents, this teen group has the highest blood alcohol levels. With the holidays fast approaching and tragic traffic stories already in the news, it is a perfect time for parents to remind their children and teens about the dangers of alcohol use.
Don't forget that the No. 1 reason for teens not to drink is because it's illegal! Unfortunately, the highest amounts of heavy and binge drinking occur in adolescents. Studies have found that alcohol use in the teenage years has many negative effects, including:
- Difficulty with forming memories
- Interference with sleep patterns
- Impaired judgment and decision-making skills
- Alcoholism as an adult
- Lower educational achievement
- Tendencies toward antisocial behavior, delinquency, drug abuse and violence
This time of year teens are socializing with friends and out on the road at night more than usual, especially as college students are home for break and want to see their friends. High school students also have some time off, which they use to go to the mall, the movies, or to just hang out. Parents should lay down some ground rules when teens are driving to ensure their safety. Although parents hope their teens will not drink when they are underage, it is critically important for them to make it clear that driving while under the influence of alcohol is absolutely the wrong choice to make.
It's natural for teenagers to want to experiment; they feel the need to try new and adult things. However, many of the beliefs that teenagers have about alcohol and alcohol use are not true. Talk with your teen about these common myths, adapted from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), so that he or she knows the real truth about alcohol:
- Using alcohol is not as bad as doing drugs — Alcohol is the No. 1 problem facing youth in America, and 10 million Americans are addicted to it. Alcohol kills more than six times the number of people than do all illegal drugs combined.
- Beer is better to drink because it makes you less drunk — Blood alcohol content, not the type of alcoholic beverage consumed, is what determines how drunk a person is. Alcohol is alcohol!
- Alcohol only hurts the person drinking it — Taking alcohol causes worry and pain to everyone’s family and friends. It is OK to get involved if a friend is drinking and you are worried. Taking alcohol can lead to injury and death.
- Alcohol makes you feel and look good — Alcohol causes you to use bad judgment and make poor decisions. It actually can lead to sexual assault, AIDS, pregnancy, car crashes and worse.
- Alcohol does not have any permanent negative effects — Lots of alcohol can do permanent damage to key organs in the body, such as the heart, stomach and liver.
It appears that it is best to focus on the positive outcomes of not drinking alcohol. For example, staying away from alcohol lets adolescents and young adults:
- Stay healthy
- Live up to their potential
- Keep their self-respect
Parents should help their teens practice how to say no, how to avoid being pressured into taking a drink, and how to choose a soda over a beer.
There are "Contracts for Life" to help parents deal with this issue at home. This document is a contract that parents and teens discuss and sign; in it the teenager pledges to call a parent for a ride home if he has consumed any alcohol, and the parent agrees to pick up the teen whenever he calls for a ride, but to save any questions or comments for later.
Parents, along with schools and communities, can play significant roles in keeping our children safe from the negative consequences of underage drinking as well as drinking and driving. There are steps we can take to keep teenagers safe, like allowing them to invite friends over to the home for fun without drinking during the holidays and creating formal programs to keep teens safely busy between midnight and 6 a.m. on popular occasions such as proms and graduations.
Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a senior lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.