If you're like most parents, you believe that teenage drinking is a real problem — for other people's children. "Not my kid," you think to yourself as you read the grim statistics. And they are grim: After a decade of consistent declines in teen drug abuse, a new national study released in March 2010 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and MetLife Foundation points to marked upswings in teenage use of drugs and alcohol.
Take a look at the numbers: An 11 percent increase in the number of teens who used alcohol in the past month. A significant increase in the number of teens who agree that "being high feels good." And even though 20 percent of parents of children ages 10-19 know their offspring has already used drugs or alcohol, nearly half of those parents haven't done anything about it.
Know the signs
Sobering, right? Still sure teen drinking doesn't affect your child? Take a closer look at the signs most parents miss.
Credit card statement discrepancies
It's amazing what you can buy online with a credit card these days. Teens freely admit to purchasing alcohol online says Michele Borba, Ed.D., child and adolescent expert and the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. Check your own statements closely, and make sure that your child doesn't have a bank account or credit card that is outside of your control.
Empties stashed in trash cans and recycling bins
"Most kids say alcohol is very easy to get," says Dr. Borba. And the number one place they find it? "In their homes," she says. She recommends that parents look in trash cans, particularly under boxes and in paper bags, for telltale empty bottles and cans.
Changes in hygiene
We have a mental picture of what someone who abuses alcohol should look like. And certainly, if your teen is suddenly much less meticulous about her hair and clothes, that's a red flag. "The eyes always tell a tale; red bloodshot eyes show drinking," says Dr. Joseph Garbely, an addiction psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. "Many parents look the other way," he says.
It's also important to note that "teens are sneaky," says Dr. Borba. If yours is suddenly popping breath mints and squirting Visine in his eyes all the time, is he trying to hide something?
Changes in social activities
If much of your teen's social life takes place outside the home, it can be hard to notice when his friends and activities change. But when the teen who was the lead in the school play last year isn't interested in drama at all, pay attention, say the experts. Likewise, if you're hearing different names — or no names — start asking questions.
Unexplained weight gain or loss
If a teen is drinking excessively, he's probably not paying a lot of attention to his nutrition, and it will soon start to show. Take notice if your teen gains or loses a significant amount of weight. "Many parents are in denial and don't look at the obvious signs," says Dr. Garbely. Parents have a responsibility to check in with their kids regularly and really see what's going on, he says.
Indifference about the future
A teen who is drinking isn't focusing on the future. The tip-off for most parents is plummeting grades, but "by the time grades have come in or the school has called to say there is a problem, it's late in the game," says Dr. Garbely.
What you can do
Once upon a time, the family dinner table was a sacred spot in the American household. "In my house growing up, dinner was always at a certain time, and I knew I'd have to look my parents in the eyes. That doesn't seem to happen anymore," says Dr. Garbely. "Kids have a lot more freedom and autonomy."
Fortunately, one of the easiest ways to learn more about your teen is also one of the simplest: "Spend time with them on a daily basis. Look them in the eye, without distractions. Turn the TV off, get rid of distractions, and just spend quality time with your kids," says Dr. Garbely.
"A parent's role is to stay one step ahead," agrees Dr. Borba. "Park your chair at the front door and greet them at night. Check their eyes and give them a hug."
And while family dinners are a critical weapon in the war on drugs and alcohol, that twenty minutes a day isn't enough. "Plan short weekend family trips, where you have more than a few hours together," says Dr. Jodi Stoner, a practicing psychotherapist and a licensed mental health consultant. "Make weekly family activities such a bowling, a must-do no matter how busy everyone is. You are making the investment of a lifetime."
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