Keeping Our Kids Sober – Causes and Effects of Binge Drinking in Today’s Youth
What a young drinker’s brain remembers will affect what it can’t later
Parents of high school and college-aged children have long struggled to keep their kids away from the pressures and temptations of their hard-partying peers. As adults, the decisions that we make are based on our life experiences, a sort of cause-and-effect method of thinking that helps us to base our choices on previous outcomes. It is this kind of thought process that separates the wisdom of adulthood from the inexperience of youth.
Our young people, however, often don’t have that basis to judge the possible consequences of their decisions, opting for the choice that will give them the greatest pleasure and satisfaction at that very moment, with little or no regard for the possible negative effects that those choices might hold in store. Part of growing up is learning how to give up that instant gratification for more long-term satisfaction. In many cases, our kids have to learn from their own mistakes, and no amount of pleading from us will change that.
However, we can take certain steps to help guide our children towards the healthier path by keeping them informed on the dangers and possible negative outcomes of some of the choices that they will be faced with as they go through life. Making our kids aware that the decisions they make will have consequences, some positive and others negative, will help to shape their decision-making abilities and give them confidence, strength and a sense of personal empowerment and responsibility. They will be able to resist the peer pressures that they will be faced with, and learn to be leaders of the pack rather than followers. They can learn to recognize the outcomes of their decisions and make the choices that will benefit them more in the long run.
The Effects of Drinking in Youth
According to a fact sheet released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol abuse is prevalent among our nation’s young people.
Among high school students, the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey determined that 21% engaged in binge drinking, 10% got behind the wheel of a vehicle after drinking and 22% rode with someone who was drinking. These risky behaviors are just a few examples of the choices that our children are making that could have dire consequences.
But there are also other consequences of underage drinking that aren’t always evident right away. Physical illness, problems in school or social life, legal issues, physical or sexual assault, not to mention being 500% more likely to develop alcohol dependency later in life, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. We have also been long aware that alcohol affects the brain in its developmental stages much differently than in adulthood. A recent study has demonstrated even stronger evidence of exactly the type and severity of this altered brain development.
Published on April 27th, 2015, in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the study concluded that subjecting the brain to repeated alcohol exposure during the formative adolescent years results in structural and functional abnormalities in the hippocampus, the area of the brain related to learning and memory. In their research, they found connections between neurons that were misshapen in the brain that had resulted from exposure to alcohol at a young age. When stimulated, these neurons over-reacted in a manner much like that of a younger individual. This indicated that binge drinking in youthful years will cause brain cells to be trapped in a Peter Pan syndrome, where those brain cells never “grow up” to be fully functioning adult brain cells.
“In the eyes of the law, once people reach the age of 18, they are considered adult, but the brain continues to mature and refine all the way into the mid-20s,” said lead author Mary-Louise Risher, a post-doctoral researcher in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “It’s important for young people to know that when they drink heavily during this period of development, there could be changes occurring that have a lasting impact on memory and other cognitive functions. It’s quite possible that alcohol disrupts the maturation process, which can affect these cognitive function later on.”
With all of this evidence showing the dangers of underage drinking, it is crucial that we must do everything that we can to help our young people see that their choices in life can have far-reaching long-term effects that they might not have realized.
Making the Right Choice: Giving Guidance through Support and Communication
In our efforts to show our children that drinking is not a good idea, no matter what their friends might say, it is not enough to teach them the negative aspects of alcohol abuse. We must also offer them positive alternatives, solutions to overcoming peer pressure and, above all, keep open and honest lines of communication available to them at all times. Scare tactics just won’t cut it. In order for our kids to trust us as parents and positive role models in life, they must know that we are here to help in any way that we can, by giving them options and teaching them skills that will help them avoid uncomfortable situations and temptations that might lead them down the wrong path.
Some Alternatives to Drinking
As we inform our children of the negative consequences of drinking alcohol, we should also give them choices that will be more beneficial to them later in life, and to show them the long-term positive effects that these alternatives will have for them. Some examples might include:
- Music Lessons – Does your child have a favorite band, singer, DJ or performer? Engage them in conversation about it, and try to get them enrolled to learn how to play a musical instrument or use production software that will excite them. Allow them to express their creativity and develop their own style.
- Sports or Athletics – Is your son or daughter’s room covered in pictures of a favorite professional sports team or athlete? Chances are that they most likely already involved in that sport, possibly in school or a recreational league. If this is a passion that they have, it is important that they are encouraged. Go to as many of their games as you can possibly make it to. Practice at home with them, shooting hoops or throwing a ball around. Use it to bond with your child and they will come to trust you and be more open with you.
- Visit a Museum or Art Exhibit – If your child is constantly doodling, painting, drawing or otherwise being artistic, consider a weekly excursion to a local museum or art show. Talk with them about their passion and try to find out more about their artistic influences. If comic book or graphic novel art is more their thing, try to find a local ComiCon to take them to. Showing encouragement for them in their art is certain to help strengthen your relationship.
- Make Room for Them in Your Own Life and Passions – How about you? Are there any hobbies or recreational activities that you could include them in? Fishing, woodwork, cross stitch, hiking, camping, auto work, anything that will allow you to spend time with your children will help to strengthen your bond and show them that there is plenty to do without drinking alcohol.
Overcoming Peer Pressure and Temptation
Another part of providing effective guidance to our children in avoiding alcohol abuse is teaching them different ways to push back against peer pressure. In social settings, such as high school and college parties, your child will inevitably be exposed to some of their friends drinking alcohol. Those friends will usually try to get your son or daughter to join in. It is important to teach them ways to say “no” without ostracizing themselves. Role-playing with your child can help them get used to using tactics to overcome pressure from others. Here are just a few ways that you can help them to make the right choice:
- Simply saying, “No, thanks.”– It really could be just as easy as that! However, if the pressure persists, your child may have to back up their “No, thanks” with other tactics.
- Repeat as Necessary – Your son or daughter can keep saying “no” as many times as they need to. This can help by making the other person stop pushing or allowing your child to stall until they can think of something else to say.
- Give Them a Reason – “That’s bad for you”, “You could die from that”, or simply “I don’t want to” are all valid responses to any pressure that your child might feel to use alcohol. The important thing is that your child learns to state their reason for not joining in with confidence. Arguing isn’t necessary when they can speak their mind with conviction.
- Assertiveness – This is truly the most important part of any tactic to avoiding peer pressure. If your child can stick up for his or herself, they are learning an important life skill. Assertively stating a position is a valued trait in adults. Learning to do this at a young age is excellent preparation for later in life.
- Be a Leader, Not a Follower – Suggesting something else, such as “Let’s do ____________ instead”, gives your child the opportunity to not only refuse a friend’s offer of alcohol, but also allows them the opportunity to keep another friend from doing it as well.
- Walk Away – Sometimes, the person just won’t relent, putting more and more pressure on in hopes of having control over your son or daughter. In this case, walking away from the situation is the best option. However, this won’t always work. Sometimes, your child will find themselves in a situation where walking away isn’t possible.
Communicating Openly and Honestly
Your children may find themselves in situations where they can’t get away from the person who is pressuring them to use. They might be at a friend’s house for a sleepover, or at a party that is too far away from home to walk. It is crucial that they feel like they are able to call you or another trusted adult to come and get them without judgment. If your child feels like they are going to be punished or scolded for calling you for help, they probably aren’t going to. They need to know that, by making the right choice to get away from that uncomfortable situation, they will be praised and commended for their responsibility and assertiveness.
There certainly is a lot involved in parenting, and teaching our values to our children is an important aspect of that. By practicing these strategies in our everyday lives, we can help shape our teens and young adults little by little into the strong, confident and responsible leaders that we will need tomorrow.