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Kids and alcohol: Time for the talk?

| Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, 5:38 p.m.
A new study suggests that parents have the 'booze talk' to their kids at a much earlier age than they currently are.
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A new study suggests that parents have the 'booze talk' to their kids at a much earlier age than they currently are.

Colleen Schirato and her husband, Dan, tell their kids that it is fine to have a drink here and there in moderation.

When they become adults, that is.

Until then, the kids — Darius, 13, and Greenlee, 10 — know they need to say “no” to alcohol, because of the damage it can cause to their developing brains and bodies. They see shocking stories on the news about young people dying from alcohol-related accidents like falls and car collisions.

“This is something that I believe every parent should be doing,” says Colleen Schirato, 36, of Richland, about having family discussions on the subject. “This is a no-brainer. Kids are being exposed to things earlier and earlier.”

Traditionally, parents may have had discussions about alcohol use with their high-school kids. But according to a report earlier this week from the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents need to talk to their kids about the dangers of alcohol well before they drink for the first time. Authors of the study — “Binge Drinking,” published in the September 2015 journal “Pediatrics” — recommend that parents and pediatricians start the conversations as early as age 9.

The study's authors note that kids start to think positively about alcohol between ages 9 and 13, and 21 percent of young people have tried more than a sip of alcohol by age 13. About two out of three kids, 66 percent, have consumed more than a few sips of alcohol by the end of high school, according to the report.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, which has more than 20 locations in the region, says many kids start experimenting with alcohol, often before age 15. They see drinking glorified by commercials, movies and rock stars and feel drawn to it. Alcohol combines with still developing adolescent brains, and danger results, he says. This is why parents should talk about the issue when their kids are younger, so they have more ability to prevent it.

“You start planting seeds early on,” says Capretto, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist. “By the time they are 10 to 11 years old, I think they've seen hundreds of ads that are grooming your kid, whether you know it or not, to drink alcohol.

“The message certainly to give kids is, ‘It's risky and dangerous for you even to experiment with alcohol as a teen,'” Capretto says. “The message should be, ‘I care about you.'”

Dr. Duncan B. Clark, a psychiatrist with Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland, says the goal should be to delay the initiation of alcohol use. Starting discussions with older tweens is good, because young teens may already have tried drinking.

“We typically, I think, have been focusing on mid to late teens, which is when a lot of alcohol use is occurring,” says Clark, who specializes in adolescent addiction and is a professor of psychiatry with the University of Pittsburgh. “We need to address alcohol before teens start using alcohol.”

However, Clark cautions against talking about alcohol with kids too early. Age 9 or 10 should be the very earliest, and that baseline may be a little too early, depending on the child's maturity level. Talking about alcohol should be like discussing the birds and the bees, he says. Rather than a one-time conversation, several discussions should happen over time at age-appropriate levels.

Prevention is important because research has shown that kids who drink a significant amount of alcohol before age 15 have a four-times-greater chance of developing alcohol dependence, Clark says. And the transition from the first drink to alcohol problems can be very rapid.

Parents may feel it's unrealistic to expect their teens not to drink, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't still teach them to abstain until they are older, he says. And take heart: According to the AAP study, 80 percent of adolescents say their parents have the biggest influence on their decision whether to drink.

“Parenting a teen is a challenge,” Clark says. “I think it's fine for us as parents ... to accept the contradictions. It's very likely a teen will try it. At the same time, I think it's fine for us to discourage that.”

Dr. Fonda Hollenbaugh must have done something right. Her two kids — Nick Gula, 21, and Larissa Gula, 25 — don't drink and drink sparingly, respectively. But Hollenbaugh, an emergency-medicine physician who now works for UPMC Health Plan, didn't have to tell her kids much about how alcohol can affect people. She showed them with edited anecdotes from the ER, where she treated many people who came in for alcohol-related reasons like accidents — such as the woman who fell and got her teeth knocked out the night before her wedding.

“I didn't have to editorialize about it,” says Hollenbaugh, 56, of Mt. Lebanon. “When you see extreme sorts of things happen like that, I didn't really have to tell them the dangers. I think my approach was low-key, but I was in a lucky position. ... I was able to share that with my kids without sounding like I was preaching.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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