October is Child Health Month, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has dedicated this year's campaign to the problems of alcohol use in adolescence. For many, if not most adults, the subject poses somewhat of a dilemma. Alcohol is legal, is readily available in many homes and at many social functions, and is generally considered pleasurable. So how does that affect our attitudes towards teenage drinking, and our willingness to talk to teens about the dangers alcohol poses to them?
A look at the statistics helps us focus. Most teens, more than 80%, have at least experimented with alcohol before they have completed high school. Twenty-two percent report they drink more than once a week. Many start drinking between 11 and 13 years old. More gruesome statistics point to how dangerous this trend is. We all know that motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death in teenagers. Alcohol is implicated in the majority of these. Alcohol is also strongly associated with teen homicide, suicide and other forms of accidental death such as drowning. At a developmental stage in which an individual feels fairly invincible to begin with, alcohol often leads to other high risk behavior such as unprotected or unplanned intercourse, dovetailing with two other epidemics: teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
It takes much less to get a teen drunk than an adult, and the progression to dependancy is much shorter. The earlier experimentation starts, the more likely that teen is to become a "problem" drinker. Another aspect of teen drinking that makes it unique is that teens are much more likely to use alcohol in combination with other drugs, thereby magnifying its dangers.
No matter how we view alcohol use in adults, it is crucial that we who care for or deal with teens recognize that alcohol poses incredible dangers to them in ways that are unique and specific to adolescence. We need to be able to talk to the teens and pre teens in our lives with conviction on this issue. We need to make it clear that different rules apply to them because the risks are very different, and the consequences so serious. And as with every other issue that we talk with teens about, we need to be responsible role models. The stastistics may be frightening, and the social forces we're working against powerful, but there is nothing like the clear, unequivocating input of a caring adult to help a teen on their way.