I was a pretty tame teenager -- just ask my mom. Or my brothers, who would say that as long as "tame" = "goody-goody" then they'd agree. Sure, I had a mouth on me (what teenager doesn't?), and I churned out reams of bad, angsty poetry (ditto), but I didn't drink, I didn't do drugs, and I had so many extracurricular activities that I didn't even have time to date until I was in college.
But some of my friends? Let's just say that I volunteered with Students Against Drunk Driving for a reason.
Studies by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that about 75 percent of teens have tried alcohol by the time they graduate from high school. As part of the Intel Science Talent Search competition, Chelsea Lynn Jurman, 17, a senior at Rosyln High School in New York, decided to find out what caused this behavior.
A peer drug educator, Jurman wondered what, besides the often-cited peer pressure, was a factor in teen drinking. "Since most of her peers are children of baby boomers -- who may not have spent their youths in an entirely sober fashion, and who often like to be "friends" with their kids -- she wondered what effect a parent talking, frankly, about her own drinking might have on a child," Scientific American reported.
She surveyed 123 teenagers, asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “My parents/guardians usually know where I am on weekends or after school,” how often they drank, and whether they knew if their parents had used alcohol as teens.
The results? Not what you'd expect.
Many parents assume that if you crack down on your kids they'll just sneak off and do whatever you don't want them to behind your back. So, some parents err on the side of permissiveness -- if Junior thinks we're OK with it, he's more likely to tell us if he needs help, right?
Well... maybe not.
Jurman's study found that teens who thought that their parents used alcohol as kids were more likely to drink themselves. Why? Well, if their parents drank and they turned out OK, teens think, then they can drink and they'll turn out fine, too. "The perception kids create becomes the reality," Jurman says.
But wait, there's hope. Jurman's study also found that if kids didn't think their parents drank as teenagers, the kids were less likely to experiment with alcohol.
So, what does Jurman suggest parents do to keep their high-school kids from drinking? Don't share stories about your own wild, underage adventures. Be supportive, but be strict about supervision. "Teens are less likely to drink when they are supervised," Jurman's study shows. And model good behavior; "do as I say, not as I do" doesn't cut it anymore.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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