Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin
The Peer Players theater company is performing and all eyes are on Katie. She's center stage, asking the audience if they ever had one of those days, where everything that could go wrong did.
"I broke up with my boyfriend, and then I had this crazy argument with my parents. They haven't a clue what my life is like. They just don't get it. So I went to this party at Emily's house to chill out, 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 in Kyle's car. He was driving real fast, and the next thing I know he lost control and we're headed straight into oncoming traffic. I'm screaming at the top of my lungs. I even tried to grab the steering wheel and pull us back into our lane. That's the last thing I remember. The next morning I woke up in the hospital."
Her fellow actors join her on stage, playing the parts of family and friends, sharing their thoughts and feelings about Katie's drinking and the accident. The scene ends when her little sister says through tears, "I don't understand why this happened. I'm scared for you. You have to promise me you will never ever do this again." And Katie responds, "I love you. I am so sorry. And you have to promise me that you'll never do what I did."
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.
Peer Players is kids helping kids and talking to them in a way that's straightforward and honest. The scenes are about them, acted out by people like them and have proven to be a very effective means of communicating with students of all ages.
At Liberation Programs, our prevention philosophy is to promote the growth of individuals toward their full potential through education and skill development, to enable and empower them to choose positive and healthy lifestyles.
Adolescence is by definition stressful, but these days the world is a harder place to grow up in, with young people having more demands placed upon them by parents and society. Caught between a rock and a hard place, not yet an adult but no longer a child, a teenager must sometimes navigate through a minefield of divorce or single parent and blended households. They feel enormous pressure to succeed and get into a top university and are bombarded with peer pressures about alcohol, drugs and sex.
Combine that with the normal anxieties of growing up and wanting to fit in. Top it all off with your body undergoing changes that are difficult to deal with, and it's easy to understand why adolescence can be so confusing and problematic.
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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 around 12 years old. 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 outweigh the risks.
In his March 7, 2007, "Call To Action To Prevent And Reduce Underage Drinking," Acting Surgeon General of the United States Kenneth Moritsugu stated, "We can no longer ignore what alcohol is doing to our young people. With over 5,000 deaths a year, it's like wiping out the entire student body of a medium-sized college each year. ... This needs to stop."
"For the most part, parents and other adults underestimate the number of adolescents who use alcohol," Moritsugu said. "They underestimate how early drinking begins, the amount of alcohol adolescents consume, the many risks that alcohol consumption creates for adolescents, and the nature and extent of the consequences to both drinkers and nondrinkers. Too often, parents are inclined to believe, "Not my child." Yet, by age 15, approximately one-half of America's boys and girls have had a full drink of alcohol, not just a few sips, and the highest prevalence of alcohol dependence in any age group is among people ages 18 to 20."
Our children are important to us and we want to help them find their right path in life, illustrate their talents, support them and protect them from life's dangers as they pursue their hopes and dreams.
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. Here are some simple guidelines for parents:
Talk often, listen, take time and display your love;
Be supportive and be involved;
Always keep the lines of communication open;
For important topics, it's OK to start the conversation;
Have a clear set of expectations and rules;
Set fair consequences and be sure to enforce them;
Pay attention and stay up-to-date.
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.
Our children are the future, and we must all join together -- parents, professionals and community leaders -- to provide them with the tools they need to take control of their lives, understand the risks involved in underage drinking and make positive choices. It is crucial that young people become well informed and understand that in life there are no makeup exams.
Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. Email him at email@example.com.