They can’t listen if we don’t talk: thoughts to consider during Alcohol Awareness Month

By José Rivera

In a couple of months, my husband and I will become great-grandparents. This child will be born into a loving, caring family; and he or she will also be born into today’s world, with all its wonders and joys and, unfortunately, dangers.

One of those dangers is the risk that our great-grandchild will succumb to underage drinking. We’d like to think, “Of course not, we’re here!” A sentiment I am certain that most, if not all, families share. Yet, underage drinking continues to be a major public health problem. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • “People aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States” (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Drinking in America: Myths, Realities, and Prevention Policy. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2005.)
  • The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that found that among high school students, during the 30 days before the survey: 35% drank some amount of alcohol, 21% binge drank (consumed 5 or more drinks of alcohol in 2 hours or less), 10% drove after drinking alcohol, 22% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. (
  • In 2013, 28% of 8th graders and 68% of 12th graders had tried alcohol, and 10% of 8th graders and 39% of 12th graders drank during the past month (

The consequences related to underage drinking are dire:

  • Alcohol “is responsible for more than 4,300 annual deaths among underage youth” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI). Atlanta, GA: CDC.)
  • As reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (, there were approximately 189,000 emergency rooms visits by persons under age 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol in 2010. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. The DAWN Report: Highlights of the 2010 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Findings on Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. Rockville, MD; 2012.)
  • And the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism ( reports that
  • Drinking can cause kids to make poor decisions, which can then result in risky behavior like drinking and driving, sexual activity, or violence; and
  • Youth who drink are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault.

But there is good news! Underage use of alcohol is preventable.

Community initiatives such as the Community Action Teams in Fitchburg, Gardner and Leominster (FCAT, GCAT & LCAT) work with community members to limit access of alcohol to youth following a very simple yet effective premise: youth cannot drink alcohol if it is not accessible to them. If you live, work, study, worship and/or play in any of these communities, you may want to contact LUK team members for more information. Jose in Fitchburg: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Laura in Gardner: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Dave in Leominster: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Additionally, LUK is also working to reduce/prevent binge drinking among college-age youth in Gardner through a federal grant: The Sober Truth On Preventing Underage Drinking Act (STOP Act). For more information on STOP you can contact Tom at LUK: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Many risk factors can increase the likelihood of youth alcohol use:peer use, availability and perception of approval. However, not all youth will develop substance abuse problems, even if they have experienced these risk factors. Some individuals are exposed to ‘protective factors’ that may keep them from using substances.The presence of multiple protective factors can lessen the impact of a few risk factors (

One protective factor which can diminish the influence of strong and even multiple risk factors is parental or guardian support and involvement. The key word: involvement. We have a saying in Puerto Rico: “Al que no habla, Dios no lo oye”, which translates as, “God cannot hear he who does not speak.” The same thing can be said of our children.We can care for our children, we can be happy or concerned about them, we can love them, but if we do not speak they can’t hear us.

March is Alcohol Awareness month.I am making a commitment this month to speak, not just to our upcoming great-grandchild (when he or she is old enough), but to every young person I care about, even if I think they “know” what I am going to say. I will…

  • Tell them that I love and care about them;
  • Ask them what they already know about alcohol and why they think people their age drink;
  • Listen and avoid formulating my own responses while they’re talking;
  • Keep my emotional responses to what they have to say in check;
  • Do a “reality check” on the drinking behavior of their peers (usually considerably less than youth and even adults think);
  • Not lecture or try to “win” by showing them how I am right and they are wrong;
  • If age-appropriate, I will give them facts they can easily digest:
    • Alcohol slows down your body and your mind – it’s a chemical reaction, not something people can control;
    • Alcohol is alcohol, your body doesn’t differentiate brands or tastes or, to an extent, proof (12-ounce can of beer = one 5 ounce glass of wine = a 1.5 ounce shot of “hard” liquor; they all have the same amount of alcohol and will have the same effects on the body and the mind);
    • On the average, it takes 2 to 3 hours for a single drink to leave a person’s system; nothing can speed up this process – including eating, drinking coffee, walking it off, etc.;
  • Ask them to give me examples of how they could decline offers to consume alcohol;
  • Remind them that alcohol will affect the way people judge their own and others’ behaviors so they cannot realize how poorly they’re speaking or walking or driving;
  • Be firm about our family’s beliefs and rules about underage drinking but make sure they feel safe and comfortable (I won’t stop loving and caring for them) if they tell me if they break those rules;
  • Tell them that there is a history of alcoholism in our family (again, if age appropriate) and that, because of that, they may be more vulnerable to alcoholism;
  • Not expect to cover all this (and anything else that might come up for me or them) in a single conversation;
  • Tell them again (it can never be said too much) that I love and care about them.


This Alcohol Awareness Month I am also asking that you have this conversation with the youth you love and with other adults so they can also have this conversation with the youth in their lives.


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