Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 09 April 2010 00:00
Calling underage drinking a serious issue would be a gross understatement; in addition to serving as a causal factor for a host of debilitating and potentially deadly conditions, underage drinking costs residents of New York state billions of dollars in medical costs and lost work hours.
Central Nassau Guidance and Counseling Services Inc. recently presented a special program entitled “Underage Drinking in Our Community,” to educate more people about the true risks that underage drinking presents. While parents and teachers do make some effort to discourage teens from drinking, from the information provided at the meeting, not nearly enough is being done.
One factor that may lead to complacency on the part of parents and other authority figures is the cultural perception of alcoholics; people may not consider teens to be at risk unless they start to receive poor grades, or spend a lot of time outside of the home without explanation.
However, the idea that any teen is necessarily safe from drinking was shattered by the testimony of “Sid,” a community member whose experiences as a teen may seem disturbingly familiar to many parents on Long Island.
A consistent straight-A student, Sid started drinking in order to deal with his shyness, and found he didn’t want to stop. During college, Sid’s drinking problem was reinforced by the drinking-heavy culture of upstate New York and reached new lows, including a trip to the hospital, where he was assumed dead for a brief period before his vitals came back on-line. Nevertheless, Sid was still able to perform well in school. Years later, Sid was able to maintain a steady job while drinking heavily. Eventually, Sid realized that his life was worth more than drinking and is currently sober, but not before the tragic loss of his wife and son.
Sid’s story highlighted the fact that even teens who seem to take everything in stride will sometimes start drinking; his experience is also especially relevant for local parents who intend to send their kids upstate for college. Academic merits aside, the amount of drinking that takes place at schools in upstate New York (and many other nearby areas) is notorious. Even teens who have no intention of drinking will be exposed to frequent opportunities to start doing so.
At the meeting, some of the conventional wisdom about dealing with teens was criticized “It’s not about lecturing, it’s about talking,” said Lisa Kessler, director of the Community program at Central Nassau. All of the speakers emphasized the importance of promoting positive, fun activities for teens rather than expressly forbidding behavior. “If you tell a kid “no,” chances are they’re going to go do whatever it was you just told them not to do,” commented Sid. Everyone agreed that putting up posters in schools with phrases like “Don’t Drink,” and other traditional tactics, was ineffectual. “When you put a no on something, kids don’t see the ‘no’- they ignore it,” commented Barbara Bartell, LCSW and CEO of Central Nassau. “That’s why ‘Say No To Drugs’ never worked.”
However, the emphasis on positive reinforcement does not mean that there is no place for discipline. In the end, there is no substitute for simply knowing what your teen is up to. “You’re their parents, not their best friend,” said Kessler. While encouraging teens to pursue their interests in the form of hobbies and clubs can do a lot to lower the risk of underage drinking, parental involvement is a huge factor in preventing kids from drinking; not only are kids with active parents less likely to drink, but if they start, it’s much more likely that the early warning signs of a drinking problem will be noticed.
If you know that a teen is drinking but are not in a position of authority, confronting them is not the answer, according to the information presented at the program. Instead, tell a parent, teacher, or school administrator if applicable. The soundest advice may fall on deaf ears when coming from an individual. “You can’t make them be ready, the person has to be ready themselves,” added Sid, who suggested that telling an authority figure helps to set up a dedicated support network, which will then have the influence and resources to make a difference.
If you’d like to learn more about how to protect the children and teens in your life from underage drinking, you can get in touch with the Central Nassau Guidance and Counseling Services through their website at www.CentralNassau.org. The organization was recently awarded the first “Nonprofit Organization of the Year” award from the Hicksville Chamber of Commerce.