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Dr. Marino's Addiction Blog

May 8, 2011

I would like to comment on Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz’s article Drugs and alcohol: Deliver the message early and often ( The Miami Herald , May 7, 2011).

The statement by J. David Hawkins, founding director of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington, “It’s a $1000 bribe, but for me that’s 365 days of not worrying about my son drinking…” should be discussed in a larger context.

With all due respects to Mr. Hawkins, his statement about negotiating with his 15-year-old, soon –to-be-driving son about refraining from drinking for a year in return for some pay-off ,will in the long run , back-fire. As a certified professional in the field of adolescent substance abuse, I agree that with his laying the groundwork for healthy communication among families. However, my experience in these matters suggest that once parents succumb to negotiating certain expected behaviors with their children, parental decision-making starts down a very slippery slope.

The article suggests that “steering kids away from drugs and alcohol is an imperfect science…and parents do what they have to do to contend with the youth culture saturated with substance abuse…” Yes I agree with Mr. Hawkins that parents must do whatever is necessary to keep their children drug-free. It is crucial for parents to begin the conversation about the consequences of drug and alcohol use early and often. But the message should not be “negotiable.”

An adult’s relaxed attitude toward under-age drinking and experimental drug-use may suggest to a young person that the benefits outweigh the risks. Studies have found that family engagement is a better predictor of successful treatment. Setting boundaries is a parenting technique not only critical during the adolescent years, but also needed from a teen’s perspective. Interestingly, when asked by Roper Starch Worldwide in 1998 to rank major problems facing America today, students aged 12 to 19 most frequently named as one of their top concerns “lack of parental discipline.”

But most importantly, Mr. Hawkin’s message to his 15-year old about “refrain[ing] from alcohol for the next year” is softened with a $1000 bribe and does not address the real issue of abstaining from under-age drinking period. What happens when the child turns 16, 17, 18…etc? Hawkins mentions providing incentives, but at what cost? Again, studies support the opposite approach: set boundaries and stick to parental discipline.

The message to middle and high school students needs to be “do not drink.” Kids need to hear the stronger message of abstinence, not the softer implied message of “it is okay to drink just do not drive if you do.” Unfortunately this is the twisted message eventually perceived by teens. Underage drinking accounts for 25 percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. according to a new report recently released by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA).

Apart from the referenced disturbing statistics, what is most disconcerting as an addictions specialist dealing primarily with the adolescent population, is what the CASA researchers have confirmed: teens have easy access to alcohol because parents are too often unwitting co-conspirators who see underage drinking as a rite of passage (or as Mr. Hawkins’ states “giving up something many…friends might be enjoying.”) rather than a deadly round of Russian roulette. The message to our children must be non-negotiable: stay away from alcohol and drugs.

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