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A Is for Alcohol, P Is for Prevention


Parents preparing to send their children off to the fall semester at high school, or even middle school, may be conscious of the need for underage drinking prevention to keep their kids safe and out of trouble with school administrators and the law. If their daughters and sons are heading off for their first year at college, many moms and dads may be concerned about the widely publicized excessive drinking that occurs on many campuses. But how many dads and moms readying 5- and 6-year-olds for kindergarten or first grade, or even younger toddlers who will be attending preschool classes or programs such as Head Start, think about underage drinking or what might be done now to reduce the likelihood of it happening later?

You may need to help this audience recognize how early the roots of underage drinking may begin to grow. As a 2008 article in Pediatrics,the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, states: “… risk factors that consistently precede and predict early use and/or dependence … include … family history of alcohol abuse, parents with antisocial behavior, mothers with depression, poor parenting (eg, maltreatment, neglect, or poor monitoring), prenatal exposure to alcohol and clear fetal alcohol syndrome, child maltreatment, child antisocial behavior, child smoking or substance abuse, self-regulation problems that also predict antisocial and risk-taking behavior (eg, attention problems, effortful control problems, or impulsivity), cognitive learning difficulties in children, and various internalizing symptoms in children.” Similarly, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study has demonstrated that stressful or traumatic experiences in childhood are strongly related to development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems, including substance abuse, throughout the lifespan.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Building Blocks for a Healthy Future (Building Blocks) provides parents, teachers, and other adult caregivers of children ages 3 to 6 with information they can use to guide children from the very start of their educational development and so increase the chances that kids will make good decisions later on. A new back-to-school article will be on its way to Building Blocks subscribers and posted on the program’s website this month. You can make sure that parents and teachers in your community know how to find it and why they should give it their attention. The risk and protective factors to which even children ages 3 to 6 are exposed are common to many problems that they may encounter as they mature; an investment in lowering the risks benefits all children, whether they are at particular risk for alcohol problems or not.

By middle childhood, how kids think about alcohol goes through a major shift, from negative to positive. It’s then that it becomes important for parents and educators to begin talking to them about alcohol, setting clear rules, and providing fact-based answers to questions kids may have about drinking. This is the time when drinking begins for too many kids, and trouble starts to happen. It’s when health and safety and academic performance are often negatively affected by adolescent drinking. It’s also when episodes of binge drinking may cause long-term changes to developing brains. In 2013, SAMHSA launched a national public education campaign based on evidence that parents can make a positive difference during these critical years of change. “Talk. They Hear You.” has tools for the adult family members and caregivers of those tweens and teens, ages 9 to 15, who are on the verge of making important, possibly life-changing decisions about alcohol. The campaign’s website pages link to other resources that can help parents and teens negotiate adolescence safely, such as Too Smart To Start, an alcohol prevention program with content directed at kids, grown-ups, families, and communities.

Some parents may still harbor the comforting fantasy that their job is well done if they get their Dick and Jane through high school graduation without having their offspring exhibit signs of a substance abuse problem. But if they don’t want that college savings account they’ve scrimped so long to build go down the drain, perhaps all too literally, then they need to have some serious discussions about alcohol with their soon-to-be freshman before he or she leaves for Party U. The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has funded recent studies that show that parent-based interventions can offset the heightened peer pressure and increased opportunities for drinking that college freshmen often face. NIAAA’s 4-page “College Drinking” factsheet might be just the tool you need to get parents of college-bound youth in your community to do their part to make higher education safer and more successful.

Back-to-school season is a good time to remind parents that if A is for alcohol in some kids’ minds, P is for prevention.