When it comes to teens and alcohol, drunken driving is far from the only thing that should concern parents. Teen alcoholism.
That's the message from MADD, whose new analysis of alcohol-related deaths among people 15-20 estimates that 68% of fatalities connected to underage drinking are not traffic related.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving analyzed 2010 data from the FBI, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on deaths related to underage alcohol use. It estimates that 32% of these deaths were traffic fatalities, 30% were homicides, 14% suicides, 9% alcohol poisonings and 15% other causes.
"As parents, we are definitely aware of the dangers of drinking and driving," says MADD national President Jan Withers. "I think we're not as educated about all the dangers that drinking before age 21 can be related to. And they're very, very real."
MADD and Nationwide Insurance commissioned the analysis for their third annual PowerTalk21 day on Sunday when parents are encouraged to start talking with their children about alcohol.
It's never too late to begin that conversation, says Rob Turrisi, professor in behavioral health and prevention at Pennsylvania State University. The parents of even a high school senior who drinks occasionally or not at all can prevent that child from becoming a heavy drinker in college, parents of a teen who drinks heavily as a high school senior can reverse that pattern when the child gets to college, he says.
Youth alcoholism on the rise
The key: parents having caring, thoughtful, ongoing conversations about underage drinking. "There are two really important social influences on a young person's life," says Turrisi, who has researched underage drinking for more than 20 years and developed MADD's free handbook, Power of Parents, (www.madd.org/powertalk21) as a guide for parents. "The first is their friends, and we know all about peer influence. The second most important influence is their parents. Parents can be really impressive. We are really in charge of helping our kids grow."
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found one-quarter of people ages 12-20 — 9.7 million — reported drinking within the previous month. Among those who did not illegally buy booze themselves, parents, guardians or other adult family members supplied it to 21.4% of the underage drinkers.
Many parents mistakenly believe that exposing their teen-aged children to alcohol in the safety of home while taking away the car keys is a good preventative approach, says Bill Windsor, Nationwide's associate vice president of consumer safety.
"Parents think, 'If they do it here, they won't do it somewhere else,' " he says. "But that's just not the case. It's important for parents to know that there is a significant danger here and it goes deeper than just taking away the car keys."
Turrisi's research shows that kids who drink perform worse in school, get pregnant at higher rates and have higher rates of alcoholism later in life, Windsor says.
Debbie Taylor decided to let it slide when she found her teen-aged son's stash of rum in the garage. After all, she reasoned, Casey was pretty much an all-around great kid: He was a high school senior who was on the honor role. He played football, wrestled, played tuba in the marching band, sang in the school choir and worked part-time in a restaurant near their home in Casper, Wyo.
She figured that it was OK for him to have an occasional drink at home, he wasn't going to be driving anywhere. "Instead of taking the bottle and bringing it in the house and having a conversation with Casey, I left the bottle where it was. And thought, that's not so bad. It's what all the kids do.
"I ignored the fact that he was drinking at all," says Taylor, 54.
Today, she regrets that decision as only a grieving mother can.
Four months after she found Casey's rum, he was dead of alcohol poisoning. One Saturday night after chugging rum with friends, he never regained consciousness. His blood-alcohol content was.41.
Adolescent alcoholism symptoms
"My message to other parents is talk to your kids about the dangers of alcohol, because it isn't just driving drunk," Taylor says. "I taught my kids to never drive drunk. That was always a statement in my home. Don't drive drunk. They understood that. But I never raised them to not drink alcohol at all."