April marks the beginning of a special time of year for teenagers. With spring break, prom, graduation, summer and maybe even college on the horizon, the stage is set for underage drinking. Like so many of these milestones, experimentation with alcohol can seem like just another rite of passage. But April is also Alcohol Awareness Month, and Central Wyoming Counseling Center’s Carol King wants people, especially parents, to understand that teen drinking actually is a big deal.
Teenage brains are still “under construction.” They’re growing, maturing and learning from their environments. It isn’t until around the age of 20 that our frontal lobes fully develop, and we gain the neurological capacity to make better decisions. We weigh risks and rewards more rationally, and our impulsiveness reduces. In other words, kids under 20 simply are not biologically ready to understand the dangers of alcohol and addiction.
Unfortunately, society is still underdeveloped when it comes to teen drinking. King, the Substance Abuse Program Director at Central Wyoming Counseling Center (CWCC), believes that this mentality needs to change.
“Wyoming has one of the highest alcohol use rates in the nation, and that starts at a young age. Kids are really focused on experience, and they’ll try substances because they don’t recognize that it’s not a good idea,” she said.
The younger the adolescent is when they have their first drink, the more dire the outcome can be. The age at which someone first tries alcohol is a strong indicator of future addiction. Kids who try alcohol for the first time before age 14 have a 43 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic. When that first drink is delayed to age 18, the likelihood is reduced to 18 percent, and at 20-years-old, there’s just a 10 percent chance.
Based on these statistics, King advises parents to find ways that will delay their child’s first drink, which starts with parents being the example. The number one place kids access substances is in their own homes, so she encourages parents to keep little to no alcohol there. And when you go somewhere to drink, be conscious of the role alcohol is playing.
“When we show our kids that you don’t need alcohol or substances to enhance an experience, that will become their reality. But it also works the opposite way. So if you drink beer every time you fish, they’ll learn that you have to drink to enjoy fishing,” King said.
As any parent with a teenager already knows, adults have less influence over their kids throughout high school while their friends become more significant. By putting our kids in situations where they choose positive peer groups for themselves at a young age, they’re less likely to get involved with substances.
“Start them young in safe activities. Pick a sport or a hobby that occupies their times and gives them goals to work toward. You won’t be able to pick your 14-year-old’s friends, but you can convince your 7-year-old,” King said.
Even with the best intentions, kids don’t always follow your plan for them. If your child does decide to try alcohol, it’s not the end of the world, according to King.
“Be willing to talk to your kids and listen to them. Having open and honest conversations about alcohol and drug use will help you understand why it happened and how you can prevent it in the future. You’re protecting your child from a lifetime of harm, so this is one of the most important talks you can have,” she said.
Alcohol Awareness Month is a great catalyst for this discussion, and it’s an opportunity for adults to set an example. Throw out old bottles of booze in your pantry, skip your evening glass of wine or have an alcohol-free weekend. Your family and kids will notice.
King often asks her patients how alcohol made their lives better, and the answers they give her are not usually positive ones. True rites of passage are enriching, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime events. This month and moving forward, let’s make sure we keep it this way for our kids by identifying drinking as a dangerous risk rather than our norm.