WASHINGTON, D.C. — A.J. Senerchia started occasionally drinking in the 7th grade. When he began drinking regularly during the week, his family did not know what to do, he said at a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) briefing Monday. He started to have emotional problems, became depressed and hostile, and was the “black sheep in my family,” he said.
Now 22 and several years sober, Senerchia urged the audience, made up of advocates and government officials to treat underage drinking like “the public health issue that it is.”
The briefing, which included remarks from U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Pamela Hyde, administrator for SAMHSA, kicked off SAMHSA’s national media campaign, “Talk. They Hear You,” which is aimed at preventing underage drinking. The mixed media campaign includes commercials, print PSAs, community and partner toolkits and a new resources website. Surgeon General Benjamin said she and her colleagues hope the effort will empower Americans to make better health choices and curb the problem.
In 2011, alcohol was the most common illegal substance used among young people, said Benjamin. And, although national rates of underage drinking have dropped, they continue to be unacceptably high, said Hyde. More than a quarter of young people under 21 are drinking — approximately 10 million youth in the past month alone, said Hyde.
Drinking often has severe negative short and long-term consequences for children and those around them, said Hyde. According to a SAMHSA fact sheet, injury or death from accidents, unwanted or unprotected sexual activity, health problems, such as depression and anxiety disorders, academic failure and drug use are among the consequences of underage drinking. The negative effects of underage drinking can last beyond childhood, said Benjamin, damaging and altering an adolescent’s still developing brain.
The “Talk. They Hear You” campaign arose from SAMHSA research that found that more than 80 percent of children say their parents are the leading influencers in their decision to drink or not, said Hyde. Despite the prevalence of underage drinking, it is not a top-of-the mind issue for parents and many parents don’t know how or when to start to talk to their children about the dangers of drinking, added Hyde. “It’s about seizing the right moment” to start this important conversation, she explained.
Hyde and the other speakers urged parents to talk to their children as early as age 9. Even at age 6, she explained, young children understand that alcohol is an ‘adult’ drink. But, from around age 9 and continuing into early adolescence that belief can shift as young people begin to experiment with alcohol. “As parents,” said Hyde, “we have more influence [on our children] than we sometimes think.”
SAMHSA’s PSAs, commercials and toolkits provide concrete guidance and tools for parents and other adults to start talking to children about the dangers of drinking, according to Frances Harding, director of the Center for Substance Prevention at SAMHSA.
Harding told Youth Today that the messages children get from their parents should be the same ones they get from their educators, social service providers and community and religious leaders. The materials SAMHSA has developed, she explained, can be used and adapted so that not just a parent, but other caring adults can start this conversation with a child.
As the summer months approach, first time alcohol use doubles among children, warned Hyde. Now is the time to start talking to your sons and daughters, she said. Parents are the most important figures to help curb underage drinking, said Benjamin. “Talk to your kids,” she urged, “they really do hear you.”
Jessica R. Kendall, JD is co-founder of Child & Family Policy Associates, a Maryland-based consulting firm, and has authored several books, articles and practice guides on child protection and juvenile justice issues.
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