Kristi Brown: Teen alcohol use: What's the big deal?

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When I think back to my teenage years and the way my parents handled teen drinking, I could easily subscribe to the notion that alcohol use by teens is "normal" and a "rite of passage."

For many of us, it was a regular occurrence, an ice-breaking tool, or a confidence booster during an awkward developmental period. While I made it through my risk-taking youth relatively unscathed, I certainly know others who did not fare as well. I used to think the difference between myself and the kids who died, ended up in jail or have developed dependency issues is that they all made poor decisions. According to my teenaged self, the others had trouble setting limits, took big chances and went too far.

As I reflect on it as an adult, I recognize that sometimes I did, too. I guess maybe it was more luck than good decision-making that I have to thank for being alright today.

During the past few decades, much research has been done on the effects of alcohol on the developing adolescent brain. According to a 2003 American Medical Association report, studies have now proven that the human brain is not fully developed until well into a person's 20s. That certainly explains why many teens struggle to make good decisions, control their impulses and fully understand the consequences of their actions. Alcohol negatively affects the wiring process in teen brains, creating the chance for permanent short-circuits.

Teens struggle for independence, social acceptance, athletic achievements, individuality and academic accomplishments. Making sure that kids have all the tools they need to become well-adjusted, productive members of our society starts and ends with parents.

Teachers, religious leaders, medical professionals, counselors, community leaders, coaches, mentors, other family members, neighbors and friends are integral parts of each child's individual support structure. But parents are really the ones whose attitudes count the most when it comes to influencing the behavior of their own children.

According to a 2001 Columbia University study, parental approval is the No. 1 motivator for kids to remain alcohol-free. As parents, what can we do to change well-established group norms regarding teen alcohol use? It really comes down to two simple words: Being involved.

Talk. It's important that children hear about the dangers of alcohol use directly from parents. Let kids know that alcohol can damage their developing brains, can cause them to use poor judgment and do things they don't really want to do, as well as can get them in some pretty big trouble. Alcohol use by teens is illegal, against school and sports club policies, and can hurt their chances to succeed.

Set limits. It is important to set reasonable ground rules - make kids aware of the rules and consequences for rule-breaking - and consistently enforce them.

Monitor. While most teens yearn for independence and deserve some space, knowing where your child is, who he is with, and what he is doing is an essential part of keeping him alcohol-free. There has never been a better time for communication - cell phones, e-mail, text messages. Check in often and encourage your kids to do the same.

Network. Talk to other parents. Make sure that they will not allow kids to drink alcohol on their watch. Make sure they will be home when teens are there. Make sure that kids are where they told you they would be. Let other parents know when you'll be out of town to avoid unsupervised parties at your home.

As adults, we're entitled to the rights and responsibilities surrounding our own alcohol use. It's not hypocritical to tell our kids to do as we say and not as we do. It's our job to protect them from all the harm that can come to them if they drink.

Instead of the "don't ask, don't tell" parenting style of previous generations, let's adopt an approach that doesn't leave the health and well-being of our kids to chance. If parents provide a united front against teen alcohol use, we can create safe places for kids to be kids.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Kristi Brown works with the Youth Wellness Initiative in Steamboat Springs.

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