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Waiting five more years before taking that first drink of alcohol can make all the difference in the outcome of a teenager’s life.
According to Chris Brown, a school psychologist and professional counselor, a teenager is 685 percent less likely to abuse alcohol in their late 20s if his or her first sip of alcohol occurs at age 19 instead of age 14. However, a recent Cheshire survey on risky behavior showed that nearly 50 percent of respondents said they had their first sip of alcohol between the ages of 13 and 15.
“Some middle school students said drinking was acceptable,” Brown said. “And, they are five times more likely to have had a drink in the past 30 days.”
Freshmen in high school are three times more likely to drink if they believe the behavior is acceptable, Brown said.
His observations were part of a March 19 presentation, sponsored by the Cheshire Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking, on alcohol and its affects on the teen brain. His goal was to inform the public on the risks of underage drinking on teenage brains, which are still developing until the age of 25. Besides drunk driving, Brown said there were other “less visible” risks that parents and teens need to be aware of such as injury, violence, and sex.
“These are life changing and unfixable events,” Brown explained, “but they are completely avoidable.”
The presentation was the third of four events planned by the Coalition as a way to educate the public on the dangers of alcohol. At the meeting, Sarah Bourdon, the Coalition’s project coordinator, said she was happy to see some newcomers attend the meeting because it’s their goal to “inform people.”
“Knowledge is power,” Bourdon said. “It’s our mission to educate.”
Brown explained that it “doesn’t take long” for alcohol to start impacting the brain and its reasoning mechanisms. He said that it’s a goal to protect the brain from birth, from baby gates blocking the stairs to bicycle helmets. However, alcohol could have the biggest impact of all on a developing teenage brain.
“Alcohol impacts brain development,” Brown said. “It affects the memory centers and negatively impacts managing social stress.”
With the advent of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Brown says there is a “tremendous fear of missing out on something” that circulates among teens, which he thinks “leads to more stress.” With increased stress levels, it is more likely that a teenager will experiment with drugs and alcohol to cope. Unlike in years past, when marijuana was referred to as the gateway drug, Brown explained that alcohol is becoming the first substance young people choose.
“I haven’t seen kids who use pot or cocaine that haven’t first used alcohol,” he said. “There is no such thing as safe teenage drinking.”
Brown said parents should band together and be the “mean parents” who don’t let drinking parties occur in their house. As these parent groups become larger, it would eliminate the so-called safe drinking environment where parents take away keys and make sure teens spend the night. However, there are other risks, such as physical injury or alcohol poisoning.
“It has nothing to do with drunk driving,” Brown said. “ It has everything to do with situations that appear to be safe and aren’t.”
Resident Bill Beebe said he attended the meeting because he has two teenagers at home and he was trying to “figure out what’s best.” Beebe said he enjoyed the presentation and he was “impressed,” adding that the message “reinforced his beliefs” of safe parenting.
This was a good way to try and keep up on things, “Beebe said. “I think we all learned something here tonight.”
The next Coalition meeting, the last in the four-part series, is scheduled for May 7. For more information, visit the Coalition’s Web site at www.cheshirecsud.org.