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Heidi Sallee, MD

Parents sometimes struggle with setting boundaries for teenagers—particularly when it comes to enforcing those rules outside the house. Alcohol abuse is one area in which this struggle can be especially worrisome.

Summer can be an especially risky time. Fewer responsibilities, combined with outdoor gatherings where adult supervision may not be present, increase the likelihood of opportunities for teens to drink.

At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, pediatrician Heidi Sallee, M.D., urges parents to review steps to reduce risks, particularly during the summer months.

 “Many kids have summer jobs to keep them busy, but still likely have more free time and more of an expectation of enjoying life,” Dr. Sallee says. “Parents just have to make sure kids enjoy their summer safely.”

As much as parents may not like to think about it, many kids and teens try alcohol long before it’s legal. Health experts say multiple studies find that nearly 80 percent of high school kids have tried alcohol.

A major concern is that kids who experiment early on with alcohol are at higher risk of progressing to alcoholism in their teen years and early adulthood. But there are more immediate risks as well.  Nearly 2,000 teens and young adults die each year in alcohol related motor vehicle accidents.

Multiple risk factors have been identified for kids to experiment and some to develop addiction to alcohol.  Dr. Sallee says these include genetics – alcoholism sometimes runs in families – and family situations that cause stress, such as divorce of the parents or economic hardships.

Adolescents and teens who lack a close relationship with their parents, or those who receive inconsistent discipline, are at high risk, Dr. Sallee notes. But even in homes in which parents are actively involved in their children’s lives, one risk factor can’t be avoided: simply being a teenager.

“We as parents have to realize that teens feel invincible. They don’t believe they are the one who is going to crash their car or end up in the hospital from alcohol poisoning from drinking too much,” Dr. Sallee says.

Adolescents and teens also are prone to impulsive behavior because of a delay in brain development, Dr. Sallee explains. She notes that many studies have concluded that reasoning skills, particularly to evaluate risky behaviors, are not fully developed in the human brain until people are into their 20s.

“Developmentally, teen brains are just not there yet,” Dr. Sallee says. “Teens may look and act very much like adults and be very articulate, but we as parents should not get lulled into thinking our kids are fully capable of making decisions on their own.”

To reduce risks, Dr. Sallee suggests that parents of adolescents and teens redouble their efforts to maintain ongoing, open communication. Of course, this isn’t always easy with a teen, but parents should try.

Dr. Sallee notes that studies find that girls in particular who have a close relationship with their parents are less likely to experiment with alcohol. “We don’t always have a mother or a father in the picture, but whoever is providing adult supervision needs to be involved.”

Supervision today also includes monitoring of online activity. Dr. Sallee notes that she is a “friend” on her own children’s Facebook page. “I make comments on their comments and I get notifications when their friends comment.  I stay involved and they know I’m involved.”

Of course as teens get older, they naturally break away and earn some privileges. But Dr. Sallee suggests that until they go off to college, parents should always know the basics: who the teen is hanging out with, where they are, and what time they expected to be home.

Foremost, Dr. Sallee recommends that parents talk to teens on a regular basis. “There are going to be times when your teen is going to push you away,” Dr. Sallee says. “But you need to resist that and maintain close ties and stay involved in their lives.”

She notes that sitting down to dinner at least five nights a week “makes a huge difference, not just in alcohol or drug abuse but even in reducing the risk of obesity.”

Another tip for communicating with teens – talk in the car. “Maybe because you are both stuck in the car and not maintaining eye contact, kids find it’s non-threatening, and many parents find their kids open up in the car.”

Dr. Sallee suggests these general tips for parents to help protect kids from using and abusing alcohol:

  • Be a good role model. Consider how your use of alcohol may influence your kids.
  • Help build your child’s self esteem. Kids are more likely to feel good about themselves and engage in positive behaviors when parents emphasize their strengths.
  • Teach kids to manage stress in healthy ways, such as by seeking help from a trusted adult or engaging in a favorite activity.
  • Educate yourself about alcohol so you can be a better teacher. Read and collect information that you can share with kids and other parents.

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