It’s April, which means it’s alcohol awareness month. This year the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence chose a theme by the name of Connecting the Dots: Opportunities for Recovery. To me, this sounds like promoting recovery and the many pathways we can take to get there, but that’s not what this year’s theme is geared towards. In this instance, the NCADD is referring to alcohol and drug use by young people. Substance use by young people can pose a threat to themselves and society and is associated with unsafe sex, educational issues, alcohol overdose, drug overdose, traffic fatalities, violence, suicide, and other negative behaviors.
As most of us know, the teenage years are when risks are taken and caution is thrown to the wind. When drugs and alcohol enter the scene, parents have to think critically about how they will address these potentially dangerous situations. It might be tempting for parents to just let their kids explore and get through it, but research shows that taking an active role in learning about alcohol and drugs, and helping their kids do the same, can have a positive effect. In fact, kids who have conversations with their parents and learn about the risks of drug and alcohol use are 50 percent less likely to use these substances than kids who don’t have these conversations. The longer young people are able to delay drug and alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop issues associated with it. This is why the NCADD says it’s important to help children “connect the dots” and make smart decisions about drug and alcohol use.
Why it has to start with young people
Alcohol is the drug of choice among youth. Every year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking. This includes 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and hundreds from other injuries like falls, burns, and drownings. And yet, drinking is still popular among adolescents. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an annual survey of U.S. youth showed that ¾ of 12th graders, more than 2/3 of 10th Graders, and about two in every five 8th graders have consumed alcohol. The same research showed that many adolescents start to drink at a very young age and they binge drink, often consuming four to five drinks at one time.
Drugs have a drastic impact on teens and children because their brains are still growing and developing. The parts of the brain that control reasoning and impulse develop at a slower pace than the area that controls coordination, emotion, and motivation. A developing brain is more easily damaged than a brain that’s fully mature. Drugs and alcohol can affect memory and a person’s ability to respond to stimuli and stressful situations. Developing brains are also more susceptible to addiction. Additionally, addiction most commonly begins in the teen years and continues into adulthood. In 2011, a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse showed that 90 percent of Americans with substance use disorders began using alcohol or other drugs before the age of 18.
Alcohol awareness should promote recovery
Drinking is embedded in our culture and it’s no different for young people. They see the advertisements in magazines, on TV and social media pushing the idea that alcohol is a coping mechanism, a glamorous substance to indulge in, and something that makes life fun, not dangerous. The change must come from society, but also from parents.
Of course, you want your children to make their own decisions, their own mistakes, and learn and growth from them. We know that it’s impossible to force any young person to choose a certain path. That’s why it’s so important to be honest with kids about the disease of addiction, what it is and how it’s treated. If they one day ever find themselves at their own bottom, they need to have the information to ask for help and enter recovery.
In my opinion, we should take this year’s Alcohol Awareness Month theme literally. Let’s help everyone, especially young people, connect the dots and understand the plentiful opportunities for recovery. Not talking to your kids at all about alcohol and drugs shouldn’t be an option. Telling them just not to drink or use doesn’t work either. Kids are smart and they will grow up to be educated and mindful adults. They should be told the truth, the dangers associated with drugs and alcohol, what could happen, and that addiction isn’t a moral failing; it can happen to anyone despite their best efforts. If you’re in recovery, share it.
Let’s show our youth that there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Recovery is possible and it’s out there for anyone who wants it. This Alcohol Awareness Month, it’s not just about the dangers associated with alcohol use, it’s talking about recovery in real time, with real solutions. Let’s put a face on recovery and talk about the multiple pathways to get there. Everyone should have access to the many opportunities for recovery, especially young people.