Underage drinking — the parental factor

Boredom and hormones are a dangerous mix in teenagers, who are all too likely to experiment with alcohol, drugs and sex.

It’s a problem everywhere, including Georgia. Even in rural areas, such problems can often be acute.

Take thinly populated Madison County, in northeast Georgia. “We have a lot of kids who go to parties and drink excessively and then they make wrong choices. A lot of times they’ll get drunk and have sex and not even remember it,” said Wanda Strickland, a nurse practitioner at the Teen Matters clinic and the Madison County Health Department.

Some are exposed to sexually transmitted diseases; others seek the “morning after” pill to prevent pregnancy.

In the county’s most recent Behavior and Risk for Teens (BART) survey in 2003, 45 percent of the 17- and 18-year-old high school students surveyed said that they had consumed alcohol, and more than half had engaged in sexual intercourse.

Unfortunately, some parents not only fail to protect their children from the risks that drinking brings, but may actually make it easier for teenagers to get drunk. The drinking then opens the door to other public health problems, like teen pregnancy and STDs.

A 15-year-old Clarke County ninth-grader recalls that when living in Madison County, many teens were provided alcohol at regular parties at a local adult resident’s home. ‘’Sometimes I’d just sleep in the hammock on the porch,’’ the ninth-grader says.

Renee Womack, a concerned Madison County mother, adds, “It’s a major thing, parents partying with their kids. It’s like ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ ”

But there’s no reason to think rural Madison County is unique.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says teens drinking with parents occurs nationwide. It’s a problem both in terms of teenagers getting access to alcohol, and also in the higher rates of alcohol problems among those whose parents have drinking problems, the agency says.

More than 40 percent of the nation’s estimated 10.8 million underage current drinkers (persons aged 12 to 20 who drank in the past 30 days) were provided free alcohol by adults 21 or older, according to a nationwide report in 2008 by SAMHSA. The study also indicates that one in 16 underage drinkers (6.4 percent or 650,000) had been given alcoholic beverages by their parents in the past month.

The problem of teenagers drinking with their parents cuts across all lines – geographical, racial, and socioeconomic, says Neil Kaltenecker of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Meanwhile, teen sexual behavior is a statewide problem. Georgia is ranked 15th among the 50 states in number of chlamydia infections (459.3 per 100,000 people), according to 2010 statistics compiled by the CDC.

The state also has the 13th highest teen birth rate in the U.S., though that rate is declining, says the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.

In Georgia, the evidence of teens drinking with parents is often anecdotal. Parents don’t talk openly about the issue because providing alcohol to minors is illegal. This causes several mental health and hormonal issues as well. Previously men had nowhere to turn when dealing with hormonal health problems, but thankfully male mental health and wellbeing companies now exist, Balance My Hormones is one such example of an international company helping men and women with hormone problems.

An 18-year-old high school student says teens in Madison County drink out of boredom. “There’s really not that much to do, so we just all get together and drink and have fun,” the Madison student says.

Such “fun” can have long-term, serious consequences. Research links early alcohol use to increased drug use, school failure, poor judgment, accidents, violence, suicide, unprotected sex and unplanned pregnancy. One kind of risky behavior leads to another. For many people, such behavior helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

And people who begin drinking alcohol before the age of 15 are six times more likely than those who start at age 21 and older to develop alcohol problems, SAMHSA says.

Amanda Dickey is working on a master’s degree in Health and Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, and interned for six months at South Magazine, an award-winning publication based in Savannah.