Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 29, 2005
Booze + teens = a lethal potion
Binge drinking can mean a death certificate for youth
By SUZANNE ELSTON
When we talk about creating safe environments for our kids, what immediately comes to my mind are things like smog-free air, pesticide-free food and clean drinking water. A safe environment may also evoke the dream of a world free from starvation, civil war and tyranny. Still others may define a safe environment as a neighbourhood where the streets are free from drugs, gangs and weapons.
Unfortunately, many parents are tragically unaware that what we consider normal adolescent behaviour can be just as deadly to our children as an exploding landmine or a drug overdose.
Last month I received a heartbreaking email from a friend. Her 16-year-old daughter was recently released from hospital after spending four days recovering from acute alcohol poisoning. When Alice arrived at the hospital in the back of an ambulance, she was near death. Paramedics had intubated her and she spent the next day in intensive care, in and out of consciousness.
Her mother, Sandy, wrote to me in desperation. "Parents do not seem to understand the danger or know what to do when their child is drunk, nor do all teenagers know what to do if a friend drinks too much," she wrote. Alice's blood alcohol level was 0.87, more than 10 times the legal limit for driving (not that her unconscious daughter was driving, as Sandy wryly pointed out). Sandy discovered that a blood alcohol level of less than half that (0.4) is easily enough to kill a 200-pound man. Her daughter weighs only 100 pounds.
What makes Alice's story so frightening is this is the second time she has been admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning. The first was a year and a half ago when her blood alcohol level was 0.56.
It's important to understand that my friend Sandy is a loving and supportive mother. After the first incident, Sandy was desperate to get Alice the help that she felt her daughter needed. The response from the hospital where she was treated was to recommend that Sandy keep an eye on her because "kids do this".
As Sandy tells it, her mother's reaction was equally telling.
"At least it wasn't drugs," she consoled her daughter. And therein lies part of the problem. Because alcohol is the government-sanctioned drug of choice we often forget that it can also be deadly. As Sandy's older daughter commented, her generation was told "don't smoke" and "stay away from drugs" but no one ever mentioned alcohol.
As a parent of teenagers myself, I really don't know that I would do things any differently than Sandy did after the first incident. She arranged for her daughter to receive counselling. She also severely restricted Alice's social privileges until Alice could regain some of her mother's trust.
Sandy arranged to pick her daughter up after her first several outings with friends to ensure that she hadn't been drinking. The strategy seemed to be working until last month, which is why Sandy contacted me.
"There are far too many teens dying a tragic needless death because people don't see the dangers. I really feel that we need to get the message out."
I soon discovered that Alice's binge drinking is far more commonplace that most parents realize. According to a survey conducted of U.S. college presidents, binge drinking is considered to be the most serious problem on campus. The nature of binge drinking means that kids are often put to bed to "sleep it off" before their bodies can metabolize the alcohol. The end result can be coma, as in Alice's case, or death.
Binge drinking usually begins around the age of 13, and gradually decreases as teenagers grow into adults. Unfortunately, the younger children begin experimenting with alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a serious dependency on alcohol.
"Young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21," according to the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.
Focus, an online resource for teenagers and their families, has equally sobering statistics, "It has been estimated that over three million teenagers are out-and-out alcoholics. Several million more have a serious drinking problem that they cannot manage on their own."
This is clearly a problem that needs our attention and our love. Talk to your kids. Be diligent. If you suspect that they may be drinking, talk some more, get them help. And as Sandy says, "Always remember to kiss your kids and hug them whenever you get the chance. It's a scary world." No fooling.
www.focusas.com is an excellent source of information, resources, and support for teenagers and their families.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest's Alcohol Policies Project has some excellent statistics to discuss with your our children. Go to www.cspinet.org and follow the link to Alcohol Policy.
(Send your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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