Coffee Break


Arming Kids to Resist Pressure to Drink

By Kate Rogers, Special to the Independent


Brenda Conlan acted as a lightning rod for community angst around “social host” drinking by teens at last week’s PTA-sponsored Coffee Break talk at Aliso Creek Inn.

School district Superintendent Sherine Smith and City Council member Verna Rollinger were also present at the meeting to highlight a proposed Social Host Ordinance, which will be discussed April 3 at the next City Council meeting. The ordinance would expand the powers of police to enter a home where they suspect alcohol is being served to minors.

Conlan, an expert on drug and alcohol use among teens, confessed to her own “passionate” relationship with drugs and alcohol from the age of 12 to 17.  “The true carnage of addiction is what happens between people; it is guaranteed to disrupt relationships,” she said, adding that if kids understand that alcohol and drugs hamper relationships, they begin to listen to warnings about their use.

Conlan exhorted parents to “roll up our sleeves and get into the heavy lifting of parenting.”  When she tells her own addiction story to a room full of kids, their first question is “What did your parents do?”

“We are not merely the bumbling servants on Planet Youth, in risk of being voted off the island,” she said, giving parents permission to lower the boom.  When children ask us to trust them, respond with “I trust you, I just don’t trust the environment.” She urged them to learn how to handle kids being upset.

Conlan was clear that postponement of the use of alcohol is the goal, a greater challenge today as kids enter adolescence earlier at age 11. Since adolescent brains are still growing and the central nervous more sensitive, they are more susceptible to addiction, she said. “A kid brain is not an adult brain with fewer miles.”  She emphasized that nice, intelligent, respectful teens are still swayed by temptation and social pressure to experiment.

Alcohol presents a contradiction because it is legally advertised and sold and used by parents broadly.  While use of alcohol with food is socially acceptable, Conlan said kids are mostly interested in the affect of drinking, not its beverage qualities.

Clearly delineating how many kids really are drinking socially would be a helpful tool to curb use and lower peer pressure, Conlan said. On a national basis, 35 percent of all high school seniors self-identify as binge drinkers, but two-out-of-three really aren’t, she said. Marketing exploits the “everyone is doing it” rationale to promote trial.  Said Conlan: “Users sell use as the norm.” When kids understand that many of their peers are not drinking, perceived peer pressure lessens, she said.

School board member Theresa O’Hare estimates that approximately a dozen incidents of this nature occur in town each month. Parents present reported that their kids tell them that drugs and alcohol are typically available at any party in town.

Whether true or not, it is clear some adults are either serving alcohol or turning a blind-eye to its use, which affects attitudes across the entire community.

Conlan said marijuana use is nearly as complicated because many parents were users and show no affect and its use is moving towards legalization. Kids don’t see marijuana as physically addictive, so the perceived threat of use is low. Prescription drugs are also perceived as safe and somehow legitimate for the same reason:  its medicine.

Ultimately, Conlan says clear, honest communication is key to helping kids avoid problems with drugs or alcohol. Ask questions and keep the conversation going; don’t be shy or “respectful” of your kids’ privacy, she said. And “don’t just say ‘no’,” she urged, but ask kids how they would manage a situation where drug use or drinking might arise.

Kate Rogers is a Laguna Beach parent.

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