Hoeflinger: What parents (and everyone) should know about teenage drinking

Written by Dr. Brian Hoeflinger, bhoeflinger@toledofreepress.com

Toledo Free Press - Guest Column

Our son Brian N. Hoeflinger died in a tragic car accident Feb. 2 at the young age of 18. He was a senior in high school, an accomplished golfer, carried a 4.5 GPA and had his whole life ahead of him.

On the night he died, Brian was at an unsupervised party with friends drinking vodka and  drove intoxicated. He struck a tree and was killed instantly. No one else was in the car.

I wrote this letter on May 2, three months after his death, on a beautiful spring day, a time of new life with trees blossoming and grasses turning green. I watched my children in the yard. Kevin was cleaning an old rowboat with the powerwasher. Julie was playing spikeball with a half-dozen friends.

As I watched the kids in the yard playing and having fun, I could feel Brian’s absence. I could sense life all around me, but not his. I still get the feeling that Brian should be here with us; that his death must be a mistake or a dream.

But no matter how hard I wish it, I know Brian is gone from this world and from our physical lives forever. I sat in his room yesterday and cried looking at pictures from when he was a little boy. Where does that innocence go? Why as we get older do we lose the ability to have fun as we did as children?

I picked up Julie, my 14-year-old daughter, from a friend’s house the other night. She and about 10 other girls and boys were singing together around a kitchen island after making chocolate chip cookies together. They were all standing there having so much fun singing, laughing and smiling. But soon that innocence will fade and she and her friends will be tempted to drink alcohol. Why does drinking seem to be substituted for the simple pleasures we enjoyed as children? As I watched the fun they were having together, it made me think of Brian and his friends when they were little and how much innocent fun they would have together.

Why does it change?

I think the answer is in the way society views alcohol. It almost seems like an acceptable rite of passage as we become young adults to drink alcohol. Many parents expect a certain degree of “innocent and harmless” drinking to occur. We did it as teenagers, so why shouldn’t they? What can happen after having only a drink or two, right?

But what about binge drinking, which is what most teenagers are doing? Is that OK? Was Brian’s life worth the little bit of “harmless” fun he was having with his friends that night? Brian was growing up but still somewhat of a child inside.

He was not a seasoned drinker and did not yet know the full dangers of alcohol and binge drinking.

He did what statistics suggest many in our society do, which is to start drinking alcohol in high school. Remember, statistics show that nearly 75-80 percent of all students have drunk alcohol by the end of high school and 62 percent of all seniors have been drunk.

Most parents would deny that they condone their kids’ drinking but how many of them really ever try to stop or change it from happening? Statistics show that one in five teens binge drink. 1 in 100 parents believes his or her teen binge drinks. Would their kids live without drinking? Yes!

But there would be social consequences for them. They may become less popular and may not be invited to social events involving the “in crowd” and drinking.

I think for this reason many parents choose to ignore and thus indirectly condone this behavior. We all want our children to be popular and have friends. We hurt inside when our children are hurting. Thus, many parents tolerate the fact that their children drink so their kids can be popular and accepted by the “in crowd.” Many parents host parties and knowingly or “unknowingly” allow the kids to drink alcohol, seeing no potential harm in it.

Saying no I’m sure there are many parents who are against drinking and have actively discouraged their children from drinking. These parents are to be commended for their efforts. But children will only listen to their parents so much.

I truly think the kids have to change things from within themselves as a group. If the older classmates in school who drink would take a leadership role and make it cool not to drink, then drinking among the younger classmates would soon stop.

But this would only this work if the older kids make a stand, set an example and stop drinking.

Parents should discuss this aspect of drinking with our older kids and make them realize that they are influencing the younger kids to drink. We need to encourage our children to be leaders and set a good example for others to stop drinking. I know of a ninth-grader who was asked to drink vodka by two 10-graders who got the vodka from a senior party. It is hard to say no to an upper classmate who is offering you a drink of alcohol. What if you said no? Then the rumors would start at school that you were afraid to try the vodka. It is so much easier to drink the vodka, get the recognition and ultimately the positive reinforcement of looking cool. If drinking alcohol was not cool, then this scenerio would play out much differently. In the case of this ninth-grader, he drank the vodka, got drunk and was caught by his parents.

This is where I think parents can and should get involved and talk to their children. Talk to them about peer pressure and how to handle it. Arm your children with legitimate excuses for that moment when they are asked to drink.

“My parents smell my breath and make me take a breathalyzer test when I get home,” would be a great way to get out of drinking. “A close friend of mine died from drinking and I don’t drink because of it,” would work as well.

“I have a curfew of 11 p.m. and my parents wait up for me” would also work. Or just stand your ground and say, “I’m having a good time without getting drunk!”

Teach your kids legitimate ways to say no to alcohol in front of their friends. But most importantly, set limits and boundaries for them and let your children know that you do not approve of them drinking alcohol before the age of 21! I expect that many parents reading this letter may think that I am meddling in their personal family affairs. Just because my son died doesn’t give me the right to try and change the way others think.

I may have felt that same way before Brian died three months ago.

Going through the death of a child changes your perspective on life. I realize that it can happen to anyone and could easily happen to one of our remaining three children, Kevin, Julie or Christie. For that reason, my wife and I are going to change things if we can, if for no other reason than to protect our remaining three children from the harm of alcohol and binge drinking. I know some people will be on board with this philosophy and others will not, unless it unfortunately happens to them. Then it will all become only too real but only after it is too late to change things. I’ve been through it and I only wish someone would have talked to me and tried to open my eyes to this underground network of teenage drinking before it was too late.

Gone forever

Take a true moment and really try to imagine for one instant that one of your children was never to return home and would be gone from your life forever, with no chance to say goodbye or ever speak to or see them again. Force yourself to imagine it. If you really try to put yourself in that position for just a moment and try to feel what it would be like if your child were dead, that horrible feeling of reality without your son or daughter in your future, that feeling alone should be enough for you to want to stop teenage drinking.

There is no happy medium. Just drinking a little doesn’t work because once you drink a little then you want to drink more. It’s human nature. Once you drink more then you start to make bad decisions. With bad decisions come bad outcomes, especially in your teenage years. Young adult and teenage brains are not fully developed until well into their mid-20s. The frontal lobes of the brain which control impulsivity, reason and logic are not fully developed.

Thus at their young age teenagers are much less likely to make good decisions, especially when they are under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Statistics show that injury and death from alcohol is markedly reduced after the age of 21 compared those of a younger age.

Happening right now

We only write this letter to share our opinions and thoughts because of our personal experience with alcohol and the death of our son. But we want you to know that it is happening right now under our noses and if we as a society continue to ignore this rising problem of teenage drinking, good children will continue to be injured and die needlessly. Somehow the innocence of childhood is being lost to alcohol far too soon. There is a way to stop it, but parents have to first acknowledge that it is happening. We have to stop ignoring the problem as if it doesn’t exist.

Only then can we start to properly address the issue and find solutions.

Which brings me back full circle to the question of where does the innocence of childhood go? Why do the majority of teenagers in this country drink alcohol? The answer may be that our society leads children to believe that it is OK to drink if it is kept secretive, out of plain sight and you don’t get caught. The liquor stores even sell to minors.

My son allegedly walked into a state liquor store with two other boys under the legal age and bought a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka without being carded the night he died. Some adults buy it for minors outside the liquor stores. The kids are smart and get it from their parents houses or other adults houses. Some parents host parties for minors and knowingly supply the alcohol to them. The older kids supply it to the younger kids. The point is that the alcohol is readily available and society sends the message that it is OK to drink if it’s kept secret and out of plain sight. The question is, how are we as a society going to stop underage drinking and does anyone really care to? Change takes leadership and involvement. Standing by and doing nothing does just that: nothing. We as a society have to reinforce to our children that drinking alcohol is illegal before the age of 21 and will not be tolerated at the community level or the household level. This is not a punishment we are implementing but a plan to protect our kids and save them from unexpected injury, trauma, rape and the worst-case scenario: death.

Zero tolerance

Stiffer penalties need to be in place for parents who host drinking parties for their children and their friends. There has to be zero tolerance! We as parents cannot continue to protect our kids when they break the law. I wish someone would have caught my son or arrested him before he drove under the influence of alcohol the night he died. Yes, he would have gotten in trouble and his image would have been tarnished but he would still be alive and would have learned a valuable lesson for the future. You no longer have the chance to learn from your mistakes when you are dead! That sounds harsh but that’s the harsh reality of teenage drinking.

Kids have to start to understand that underage drinking will no longer be ignored and there will be consequences for their actions. Without this mentality, teens will continue to drink and good kids will continue to die as a result of alcohol and underage drinking. My son Brian was a good kid but he made a mistake. As parents, we need to talk to our kids and find out if they are drinking and why. We all worry about our children’s safety and, unfortunately, play the odds that nothing will happen to them. But for some, the odds will turn against you and you never know who will be next. Instead of leaving your children’s safety up to luck, talk to them, educate them and actively warn them about the risks of drinking alcohol at their young age. Let them clearly know that you do not approve of drinking and that there will be stiff consequences if they are caught. They certainly will live without drinking alcohol. From personal experience, I cannot say the opposite is true.

Please think strongly about what I have written if only for your children’s sake. Losing our son Brian has been the single worst experience in our lives and there are no words to express the pain, sorrow and emptiness we feel each and every day since his death. Don’t let this happen to you. Remember, death and injuries from alcohol are preventable if we stop teenage drinking.

If you would like to learn more about Brian N. Hoeflinger’s life or read more articles on teenage drinking, please visit our website at www.brian matters.com.

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