PTA Coffee Break: Talk with your kids about alcohol, drugs

Brenda Conlan acted as a lightning rod for community angst around "social host" drinking by our kids at last week's Coffee Break at the Aliso Creek Inn.  

Conlan, an internationally known expert on drug and alcohol use among teens, opened her talk by confessing that she had had a "passionate" relationship with drugs and alcohol from the ages of 12 to 17. 

"The true carnage of addition is what happens between people — it is guaranteed to disrupt relationships," Conlan said.

Yet most kids are highly motivated toward relational closeness.  If kids really "get" that alcohol and drugs will hamper these relationships, they begin to listen.

Despite appearances, parents really matter. 

"We are not merely the bumbling servants on Planet Youth, in risk of being voted off the island," Conlan said.

In fact, when Conlan tells her own addiction story to a room full of kids, their first question is "What did your parents do?"  We parents are our kids' first line of defense.  When presented with an opportunity to try something, kids first ask "can I get away with this?  How out-to-lunch are my parents?"

Conlan exhorts us to "roll up our sleeves and get into the heavy lifting of parenting."  She gives us all permission to lower the boom.  When our children ask us to trust them, respond with, "I trust you, I just don't trust the environment." Learn how to handle kids being upset with you.    Use Ronald Reagan's approach: trust and verify.

Conlan was clear that for our children, postponement of the use of alcohol is the goal.  This is more a challenge today than it was for earlier generations, as kids enter adolescence earlier at age 11.  Adolescent brains are in an accelerated growth phase, are more plastic and the central nervous system is more sensitive.  Therefore, they are far more susceptible to addiction. 

"A kid brain is not an adult brain with fewer miles," Conlan said.

She emphasized that it is irrelevant how nice, intelligent or respectful your teen may be — temptation and social pressure will push trial. 

Alcohol is particularly confusing as it is legal.  It is advertised, available and used by parents broadly. 

"OK" use of alcohol is when it is part of the food world; however, kids are interested in the sensations of drinking, not its qualities as a beverage.  Parents who say, "The kids are going to drink anyway," are really saying they have given up. 

One area that could really help curb use or the temptation to use would be to clearly delineate how many kids really are engaging in the behavior in the local community.  On a national basis, 35% of all high school seniors self-identify as binge drinkers.  However, two-out-of-three are not

!  Yet, these non-binging kids are "invisible" in the minds of the tempted.  From a marketing perspective, "social norms marketing" uses the "everyone is doing it" rationale to promote trial. 

Said Conlan: "Users sell use as the norm."

Furthermore, kids aren't boasting about a weekend of "wild sobriety." When kids understand that many of their peers are not drinking, perceived peer pressure lessens.

There is much confusion surrounding the use of alcohol among teenagers in our own community.  Supt. Sherine Smith and Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger were present to highlight the proposed Social Host Ordinance, which will be discussed at the next City Council meeting Tuesday.  This ordinance would expand the powers of the police to be able to enter a home where they believe alcohol may be being served to minors. 

Theresa O'Hare, LBUSD board member, estimated that approximately a dozen incidences of this nature occur in town each month.  Parents present in the room also reported that their kids have told them that the norm in town is that any party always has drugs and alcohol available.  Whether or not this is true, it is clear that some adults are either serving alcohol, or turning a blind eye to its use, which affects the entire community.  One tearful parent asked, "What are these people doing?"

Conlan also discussed marijuana use among our kids as being complicated because they know many of their parents used it and are now OK.  Furthermore, the national conversation is also confusing:  Marijuana is medicine that is moving toward legalization.  Kids don't see marijuana as physically addictive, so the perceived threat of use is low.   Prescription drugs are also perceived as safe and somehow legitimate for the same reason:  it's medicine.

Ultimately, Conlan recommends that we keep the communication channels open.  Ask the questions, keep the conversation going, don't be shy or "respectful" of your kids' privacy.  Join the chorus of responsible parents telling the truth about drug and alcohol use. 

Don't just say no — ask your kids to think about who they are spending their time with and talk through how they would manage a situation where drug use or drinking might arise.  Clear, honest communication is central in helping our kids avoid problems with drugs or alcohol.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

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