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Column: 'Smart Talk' with your teens

Updated 3:47 pm, Monday, April 14, 2014
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The Peer Players theater company is performing at a parent seminar titled "How to Have the `Smart Talk' with Your Teen About Drugs and Alcohol." All eyes are on Antonella; she's center stage, telling the audience about one of those days, where everything that could go wrong did.

"I got in a fight my boyfriend, and then had this crazy argument with my parents. They always tell me that they know what's it like to be a teenager; they haven't a clue what my life is like. I needed to just chill out so I went to this party and someone offered me a beer to help me feel better. I had one, then another and another and soon we were tapped out, so I went on a beer run with a kid I didn't even know. He was driving real fast and the next thing I know he lost control and we're headed straight into oncoming traffic. That's the last thing I remember. The next morning I woke up in the hospital."

Her fellow actors, Henry, Frank, Clare and Caleigh, join her on stage, playing the parts of family and friends, sharing their thoughts and feelings about Antonella's drinking and the accident. I play her father. We express our disappointment, concern and love.

The performance is greeted by a uniform response -- silence -- and you can tell from the looks on their faces that it had a strong impact on the audience. After the scene, the actors, still in character, turn their attention to the audience for a group discussion about choices made and what could have been different. The parents talk to Antonella as though she was their daughter and she responds in kind.

It's an opportunity to talk to parents about issues they might not have been able to discuss with their kids in such a direct manner; it opens a window into the teen world and can provide insight into to how to go about strengthening the relationship with their own children. I believe that participating in the role-plays helps the parents get a truer feel for how to maintain open lines of communication and become better connected.

In Fairfield County, drinking among teenagers is 20 percent higher than the national norm, and, sadly, the drinking starts younger these days, with the age of initial trial at around 12 years of age.

The underage drinking problem is so serious that virtually every state, as well as Harvard's School of Public Health and other universities, is studying its roots and possible solutions. The teen psyche, being one of invincibility, fuels a lot of reckless risk-taking and makes it harder for young people to see the negative consequences of drinking as real. For many teens, binge drinking has become a common occurrence. Sadly, the rewards for them far outweigh the risks.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of alcohol abuse and the health and social problems that excessive alcohol consumption can cause for individuals, their families and their communities, and to encourage people to make healthy and safe choices.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. will highlight the important public health issue of underage drinking. Their theme is "Help for Today. Hope for Tomorrow."

Alcohol is the No. 1 drug of choice for America's young people; each day, 7,000 kids under the age of 16 take their first drink. Alcohol use by young people is directly associated with traffic fatalities, violence, suicide, educational failure, alcohol overdose and other problem behaviors. Annually, more than 6,500 people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related accidents. It's like wiping out the entire student body of a medium-sized college each year.

Experts in the field believe that "parent power" is the most effective way to discourage teen alcohol and drug use, as most kids get their sense of morality from their parents. Throughout a child's life, parental actions do make a difference. Parents can help protect their children from the consequences of alcohol use by increasing protective factors and reducing risk factors related to alcohol use.

Research shows that a healthy and involved relationship between parents and their children during the teenage years will reduce young people's involvement in high-risk behavior. Most teens I talk to say what they fear most is disappointing their parents. I remember how my mother's look of disappointment would destroy me.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, young people who get a strong message from parents that underage drinking is totally unacceptable are 80 percent less likely to drink before age 21 than kids who don't get a clear message. They will hold events around the country this month leading up to April 21 -- Power Talk 21 day, when parents are urged to talk with their teens about underage drinking.

Barry Halpin can be reached at barryhalpin@aol.com.