Teens At Risk

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Prom, graduation season means extra vigilance for parents.

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This is an exciting time of ear for high school seniors and their families; classes are over and it’s time to celebrate with proms, graduation parties and other festivities. The downside of all this revelry is the surge in underage drinking and other risky activities that often accompany this otherwise happy season.

Short of locking your teenagers in a closed room, there are steps parents can take to help them enjoy the season and stay out of trouble. Understanding the risks and consequences of certain behaviors and actions can lead to safer teens and calmer parents.

Legal Issues

It is against the law for anyone to drive while legally intoxicated; in Michigan, this means a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.08 or higher. For those under 21, it is illegal to consume alcohol in any amount, whether or not the individual is driving.

According to 48th District Judge Marc Barron, underage drinking can result in a Minor in Possession (MIP) charge. The consequences vary depending on circumstances, such as whether it is a first offense, but teens should be aware that college admission, scholarships and potential employment can be affected, even if the charge is eventually removed from the individual’s permanent record. The court system regards teens 17 and older as adults, not juveniles, and treats them accordingly.

Drinking and driving can result in a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) conviction, which could mean jail time and legal fees as high as $10,000. If a drunk driver injures someone else, the consequences are far more severe. A DUI charge also includes driving while under the influence of illegal drugs.

Parents who allow teens to drink in their homes, believing it is safer than having the kids go elsewhere to drink, may not realize they are exposing themselves to potential criminal or civil liability.

“By serving or allowing alcohol at a house party, you could be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” said Paul Walton, chief assistant prosecutor for Oakland County.

Such charges could result in a jail sentence, along with the involvement of the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS), which usually includes a series of investigations to determine whether the parents are fit to retain custody of their own children.

“Being the cool parent just isn’t worth the risk,” Walton said.

Barron said some parents believe they are eliminating risk by taking teens’ car keys, but driving while impaired is not the only risk; teenage drinking can result in alcohol poisoning, injury or even death, in which case parents could face homicide-related charges.

“You think you’re providing a safe haven, but how safe is it? What if a teen had an allergic reaction?” Barron said. “Also, by allowing underage drinking, the parent is reinforcing the idea that it’s OK to turn a blind eye to the law. Is that the kind of role model you want to be?”

Danger Lurks

Experts agree there are good reasons to support a drinking age of 21. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, drivers 19 or younger are three times more likely to be involved in fatal car accidents. When alcohol is added to the mix, along with the distraction of other teenage passengers and the fact that teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use, the odds of a tragedy occurring are even greater.

There are also physiological reasons why teens should not drink. Adolescent brain development usually continues until the mid-20s, and using drugs and alcohol before this point can adversely affect IQ and emotional stability; it can even trigger mental illness.

Alcohol poisoning is also a serious risk for underage drinkers, who are unused to monitoring their consumption. The parent of a teen who participated in a program at the Maplegrove rehabilitation facility at Henry Ford Medical Center in West Bloomfield said there were a number of Jewish teens in the group who had experienced severe alcohol poisoning, a serious consequence of underage drinking.

“It’s a miracle some of these kids are still alive,” said the parent, who asked to remain anonymous.

A local teen, who asked for anonymity, got alcohol poisoning during a family vacation and became violently ill for several hours.

Tips For Teens

• Use cameras with caution. Not all memories are worth preserving and posting on Facebook or Instagram. Remember, when a photo is taken with someone else’s phone or camera, you have no control over where those pictures may end up. Colleges and employers have been known to rescind scholarships or job offers because of inappropriate photos or postings on social media sites.
• Do not get into a car with anyone who has been drinking or using drugs. This applies to teens and adults. If a driver, of any age, is impaired, call your parents, another adult or a trustworthy friend to pick you up. If no one is available and you are uncomfortable staying where you are, call a taxi.
• Put safety first. If a situation seems risky or causes you discomfort, do not be embarrassed to leave. If your friends invite you to go somewhere you know there will not be any adult supervision, don’t go. True friends will respect your values and boundaries.
• If you think someone may be experiencing alcohol poisoning, get medical help immediately, especially if they have lost consciousness.

“I was having a good time and suddenly it felt like a bomb went off in my stomach,” she said.

Lisa Kaplan, a social worker who runs programs for adolescents and families at Maplegrove, urges parents to recognize the risks of teenage drinking and drug use.

“It is possible to become addicted to marijuana,” said Kaplan, who also coordinates the Kids in Charge drug education program for the West Bloomfield School District. “It’s not as harmless as many people believe.”

Eric (not his real name), a local senior, has engaged in occasional drinking with college friends but has not felt the desire to try marijuana or other drugs. He said many of his friends smoke marijuana to relieve boredom.

Research shows that marijuana can limit the brain’s effectiveness, slow thinking and impair coordination. A number of studies also have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

There also has been a dramatic increase in prescription drug abuse by teens, according to Judy Rubin, executive director of the Tri-Community Coalition, a nonprofit drug and alcohol prevention organization that includes representatives from Berkley, Huntington Woods and Oak Park. Teens have been known to rummage through their friends’ medicine cabinets and help themselves to whatever strikes their fancy, even if they don’t know how it will affect them. She advises parents to keep all the family prescriptions in a locked container and count the pills on a regular basis.

“Kids seem to feel because a doctor prescribes a medication, even if was intended for someone else, it can’t be dangerous,” Rubin said. “Mixing these drugs with alcohol can become a deadly dose.”

According to information posted on the website of the Greater West Bloomfield Community Coalition, an organization devoted to preventing illegal drug and alcohol use and other high-risk behavior, prescription and over-the-counter medications are the most frequently abused drugs among high school seniors, next to marijuana. A 2013 survey conducted by the partnership at Drugfree.org and the MetLife Foundation indicated one in four teens has misused a prescription drug at least once, representing a 33 percent increase from 2008. Stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall were among the most commonly abused class of drugs.

Peer Pressure

Parents can help teens develop strategies for combating peer pressure, such as role playing certain situations and practicing various responses. Nancy Reed, a Bloomfield Hills mother of four, said she started working on these issues when her children were in kindergarten.

“I would ask them what they would say if a friend encouraged them to do something risky,” said Reed. “I wanted it [saying no] to be the first thing off their tongue.”

Rubin said home drug testing can help kids handle uncomfortable situations. She suggests getting a test kit — from her organization or some police departments — and letting your teen know you plan to test when he comes home.

“That way, they can tell their friends they can’t use drugs because they are going to be tested,” she said. “It gives them a way out without feeling nerdy, and it’s a good deterrent.”

Urging kids to follow their instincts when they are in social situations can help them resist going along with the crowd.

Cindy (not her real name) attended a party where most of the other teens were drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.

“My friend and I left because we felt uncomfortable,” she said, “and we found out later the cops were called to break up the party. We were very thankful we left when we did.”

Parents, too, are affected by peer pressure. According to Kaplan, parents often follow the path of least resistance to avoid disapproval from other adults, especially when a parent is insecure or lacks self-confidence. Guilt about a divorce or working long hours can lead to giving in to kids’ demands.

Kaplan has some advice for adults dealing with their own form of peer pressure.

“Trust your gut,” she said, “and choose not to engage in conversations with people who will pressure you.”

She suggests building a support system consisting of other parents you trust, preferably those who share similar values.

“It’s also OK to research a subject and say you need time to think about it instead of answering impulsively,” she said.

Planning ahead also is useful. Develop an exit plan with your teen and provide money for a taxi should it be necessary. Kaplan said some families have a code word or phrase a teen can use to avoid embarrassment when he wants to be picked up.

“Having a teen call and say ‘I’m ready to go to Meijer with you now’ lets the parent know he wants to be picked up without alerting his friends,” Kaplan said.

Tricky Tactics

Teens can be cunning when it comes to hiding their drug and alcohol use, and parents need to stay one step ahead. A common ploy is filling water bottles with vodka, or adding liquor to soda pop cans or energy drinks. One way to circumvent this is to forbid kids from bringing outside beverages into your home. Tell the kids you will provide beverages for their friends during parties or other get-togethers, and do not be afraid to check purses and backpacks so the teens know you are serious.

One Oakland County mom who employed this method was shocked to learn her son and his friends had hidden vodka-filled water bottles throughout the house the week before a scheduled party.

Another mother found marijuana hidden in the removable ceiling tiles of the basement. Excessive use of breath mints, cologne or air freshener may also be a sign of marijuana or cigarette smoking.

Lying about their whereabouts is also common among teenagers. If your daughter says she is spending the night at Sarah’s house after a party, call Sarah’s mother to confirm, and ask her to tell you if your daughter seems to be high or drunk.

Successful Strategies

“Teens don’t respond to scare tactics,” said Kaplan, adding that telling cautionary tales about troubles that befell other teenagers is usually not effective.

Walton agrees, saying many teens have an “invincibility syndrome” that allows them to believe they are immune from consequences, legal or otherwise.

Kaplan suggests negotiating a written contract with teens that outlines the rules regarding drugs and alcohol, including the consequences for disobeying.

“If you are hosting a party, the contract should state that no alcohol or drugs are allowed, and that if anyone brings it in, the parents will be notified,” she said. “And let the kids determine the consequences.”

Communicating with children and teens about drug and alcohol use is recommended by experts from all areas of the field. Parents should not assume kids know how they feel; it is important to be clear and specific about rules and expectations.

The importance of parental involvement was proven by a 2010 survey of teens in the West Bloomfield school district that showed the No. 1 reason teens abstained from drugs and alcohol was to avoid parental disapproval; this was more important than their friends’ opinions or the perceived risks of drinking and drug use.

Networking with other like-minded parents can provide support and help adults stay informed about what is going on with their kids. If the teens are friends, spending time with families who share your values can eliminate dealing with situations where a teen wants to visit households that allow behavior that yours does not tolerate.

Kaplan reminds parents not to judge other parents or criticize them in front of your teen; simply explain that every family has its own way of doing things. ■

Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer

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