‘Now’ Always the Best Time To Help Kids Headed for Trouble

Opinion/Editorial

Date: April 18, 2005

By: Barbara Cimaglio
Deputy Commissioner of Health for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs

Vermont youngsters need our help. Large numbers of them are drinking, some of them are in trouble, and many more are headed for trouble.

Based on national surveys, we estimate that a third of our young people, ages 12 to 17, used alcohol during the past year, about the same number engaged in delinquent behavior, and two or three out of every hundred are heavy drinkers. More Vermont children drink alcohol than smoke tobacco or marijuana.

Not surprisingly, those who report heavy alcohol use in the past month (defined as five or more drinks in a single setting at least five times in the past 30 days) are the most likely to have participated in delinquent behavior. (See details at www.oas.samhsa.gov)

But the real problems for young drinkers lie down the road. Early use is strongly related to later dependence, and it normalizes illegal behavior. Juvenile alcohol use is directly linked to fighting, stealing, carrying handguns and selling drugs, and it can be a contributing factor to depression and suicide.

Not all young drinkers take this route, of course, but the statistics are sobering: In Vermont, the group in the most trouble with substance abuse, including alcohol, are young adults. They started young and developed a dependence.

Many people, young and old, do not see binge drinking as risky behavior. Drugs are thought to be the big problem, not alcohol.

But guess what? Between 60 to 70 percent of individuals who go into treatment for substance abuse are admitted with a primary alcohol diagnosis.

Not heroin or methamphetamines, purchased in some alley. Not prescription painkillers, stolen out of someone’s medicine cabinet. Far and away the most common substance that brings people to treatment is alcohol, available at your local grocery store.

What can we do?

If we are parents, we must talk with our children about the dangers of underage alcohol use and we must be aware of the behaviors that often go hand in hand with abuse.

When’s the best time to raise the subject? Right now would be good. Governor Douglas has declared this month Alcohol Awareness Month. Pick a date to have a chat with your child, and mark it on your calendar.

But there’s more we can do.

If we are responsible adults, we must realize that our own actions determine what is thought to be normal and acceptable in our society. Youth behavior is influenced by and supported by the behavior and attitudes of others in the culture.

If we laugh when someone has too much to drink, our children will think it’s funny. If we emphasize alcohol as the reward for coming of age, our children will confuse drinking with maturity. If we speak approvingly of someone who “can hold his liquor,” kids may adopt that as a goal worth training for.

Most importantly, if we abuse alcohol—perhaps because we started as teenagers—our children will follow our example.

If you are wondering about how alcohol is affecting your health, there’s a simple, quick, confidential test you can take, at www.AlcoholScreening.org.

The website asks 12 questions, and the feedback it provides, based on your answers, could guide you -- and your children -- to a healthier future.

Visit www.state.vt.us/adap/ to locate a treatment center or to obtain more information.