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DHS news release

March 30, 2005


Against a threat with tragic consequences, parents have influence


This guest opinion is by Karen Wheeler, alcohol and drug policy manager for the Oregon Department of Human Services. If you need the photo in a different format, please call (503) 945-5738 or e-mail jim.sellers@state.or.us


Length: 650 words

karen wheeler

By Karen Wheeler


Although I don't usually frequent bars, I was in this particular establishment on official business. The OLCC had sent an 18-year-old lad into the bar to see if he could buy a beer, and I had taken a table to observe.


The server did exactly the right thing: When she got the teen's order, she asked to see his ID. She looked at it but didn't do the math to figure his age.


Then she brought him a giant mug of beer.


This is only one example of the challenge parents face in keeping their kids from underage drinking. Even though it's illegal to drink before turning 21, it's often easy for kids to obtain alcohol.


Not only that, but the temptation is huge: Advertising promoting beer and other adult beverages is all over television, including on shows where children and teens are a significant share of viewers. In fact, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University counted 69,054 such ads in 2003 that were more likely to be seen by youth ages 12-20 than by adults.

Girls are more likely than boys to see these ads and, in Oregon, eighth-grade girls report significantly higher incidence of drinking than boys. It's an intriguing, if not scientifically established, link.


Yet the consequences of underage drinking can be tragic for the teen and sad for the parent trying to raise a successful adult.


Consider: Teens who start drinking before age 21 are far more likely to have problems with alcohol and other drugs. Underage drinking can lead to other dangerous consequences such as car crashes, unplanned and unsafe sex, brain damage and declining school achievement.


In our highly publicized concern about Oregon's "meth epidemic," parents need to remember that kids who drink are more likely to be in places where drugs are present. Yet it's reported that federal investments to prevent underage drinking pale in comparison with those for preventing youthful illegal drug use.


But there is good news for parents. You have more influence than you think. Research proves it.

Talk to your kids, and make a commitment to do it regularly.

  • Describe the health and legal reasons that you're saying no to alcohol before age 21. Point out the sham of advertising that says alcohol will make them attractive, popular and happier.
  • Calmly tell your children what you expect and why. Be sure they understand your thinking -- and that they know you're serious.
  • Be clear about what will happen if your expectations aren't met. Choose immediate consequences that are important to your children.
  • Then be prepared to follow through. Be sure that your consequences aren't so severe that you will relent, because consistency is more important than severity.

My husband and I do this with our two teenagers. Probably twice a month, we remind them of what we expect and tell them how pleased we are with what they are making of themselves. Parents who do this will tell you it works.


Perhaps more persuasive, so will researchers. Nationally and here in Oregon, rigorous research has shown that teens who say they don't do alcohol and other drugs are more likely to say they have parents who set clear limits. Those who do alcohol and other drugs usually say their parents were lax or that they simply didn't know where their parents stood on the question.


With proms and graduation parties coming up this spring, parents have an opportunity to reinforce the message. Increasing numbers of adults realize they don't need alcohol to have fun, and these milestone occasions are opportunities for teens to experience that, too.


I think of my experience in the lounge, where the teen was able to buy the beer. In the real world, we parents know that alcohol is widely available. Our responsibility is to ensure that our kids know we support them in making wise choices.


Karen Wheeler is alcohol and drug policy manager in the Oregon Department of Human Services.