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August 17, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Teen drinking could reflect parents' habits Teen drinking could reflect parents' habits (August 17, 2005)

Workshop forces adults to consider their roles in modeling youths' behavior

by Alexandria Rocha

When it comes to curbing underage drinking, parenting expert Joe Connolly says adults need to stop blaming teenagers and start looking at their own drinking habits.

Although innocent enough, he said, that glass of wine at dinner or those two beers Friday night could be sending a mixed message about alcohol and its role in everyday life.

With recent alcohol-related tragedies grabbing headlines, Connolly wants parents to stop taking teen drinking lightly and start getting stern, even if that means modifying their own drinking habits - a fact some local parents found difficult to stomach at a recent workshop.

Steve Cramer of Los Altos, whose son is in middle school, said it's unrealistic and possibly dangerous for parents to prohibit alcohol to the point where the student is having their first drink at age 21.

"That seems severe today because most people say drink in moderation," said Cramer, who attended Connolly's presentation last week with his wife, Sybil. "Popular culture says drink responsibly, but maybe that's not what we should be shooting for. I'm still surprised that's what he's offering."

Underage drinking is at the forefront of popular discussion in many parent, school and law enforcement circles. Many communities are trying to curb the problem and some are taking severe measures. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, is now requiring all students -- even those 21 and older -- to take a two-hour class and test on drinking before the school year starts.

In Palo Alto, efforts have varied from using breathalyzers at after-school events to a police crackdown on clerks who sell to minors with fake I.D. cards. A survey given to middle and high school students in the spring aimed to show teens that not all of their peers are drinking.

Connolly, who has hosted local workshops for parents this summer on topics related to teenagers, has a strict, no-excuses approach to the problem. He encourages parents to take a stern stance on alcohol, make it clear through open discussions that it is strictly prohibited, and to be aware of how adult use reflects the guidelines.

Connolly, the founder of GoodParents, Inc., shared his approach with about 35 parents -- mostly moms -- during a presentation about parents, teens and drinking held at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation last week. With the new school year right around the corner, and homecoming week and Labor Day weekend soon to follow, Connolly gave parents a crash course on teen drinking in hopes of supplying information on where it stems from, as well as the tools to tackle the issue in their own homes.

For starters, Connolly used the data from the school district's social-norming survey -- which was conducted last spring in conjunction with PAMF -- in a way that officials hadn't intended. That campaign emphasized that 77 percent of ninth-graders who responded had not used alcohol in the last 30 days, yet Connolly pointed out that 23 percent were drinking .

Some of the other figures included: 42 percent of older students at Paly and Gunn have used alcohol in the last 30 days; 80 percent of students surveyed have used alcohol before a school dance; 24 percent have been in a car with a teenage driver who has been drinking; and 13 percent have driven after drinking.

"The purpose (of the survey) was to show kids that not everyone's doing it. But, let's face it -- yes, there are still kids doing it," Connolly said. "Yes, alcohol is an issue."

Parents in the audience gasped at the statistics. They fervently took note, nodded and shook their heads either in awe or agreement during the two-hour presentation.

But when Connolly turned the attention away from the teens and onto the parents' alcohol habits, the room mostly went silent. He didn't accuse anyone of modeling drinking practices, but did share some of his own experiences to illustrate what could be happening right under parents' own noses.

His family, for example, once attended an eighth-grade graduation party that had 10 cases of beer, six cases of wine and two kegs. There were about 250 people at the gathering, and although alcohol was strictly for the adults, Connolly counted about 15 middle and high school students drinking.

"Why not? Everybody else was, right?" he asked the parents. "One of the messages that our kids may be getting from this is that it's necessary to have alcohol at a party to have fun."

In another example, Connolly opened up about his own former drinking habits. At that particular point in time, he was having a glass of wine with dinner about once a week, two beers on Friday nights (maybe three if he was watching a movie or engaging in another activity), and a maximum of three beers at the occasional weekend party.

He made it clear that neither he nor his wife thought that was out of control. Most of the parents nodded in agreement. However, when Connolly asked his son, who was in eighth-grade at the time, what he thought, the teen said, "You drink a lot."

"I made the decision to show him I don't have to drink during any of those things," Connolly said.

One parent, who didn't want to give her name, said she and her husband had already decided not to drink at home because their families had a history of alcoholism. She was glad Connolly made that point.

On top of watching how their parents drink, Connolly said teenagers are up against a huge amount of peer pressure. He explained that students start making decisions around fifth-grade based on what their friends think, rather than consequences. That's why programs like D.A.R.E., which teach kids to "Just say no," are not effective once kids reach adolescence, Connolly said.

"Kids in middle school are five times more likely to drink if their friends do," he added.

Connolly said developmentally, people do not start making decisions based on what is right until they hit adulthood at 18 or 19.

With such heavy odds, how do parents curb the problem?

Besides modeling good alcohol habits at home, Connolly's best advice is to find teachable moments in everyday life. He suggested discussing the issue when it arises during television shows, magazine advertisements, movies and other media. After all, there should be plenty of incidences -- alcohol is used more than any other product in 40 percent of today's TV programs, he said.

Toward the end of the presentation, Cramer asked Connolly what he thought about allowing teens to drink at home.

"Most alcoholics can tell you when they had their first drink," he told the group. "Most say at home, and it was given to them by their parents."

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