April is Alcohol Awareness Month: Underage drinking and the new gateway drug

It was over the stove in a cupboard high above my head. I knew where my father, a highly functioning alcoholic in his own right, stashed his never-ending supply of gin or vodka or whiskey. Beer, of course, was kept in the icebox. I knew exactly where that was as Daddy would say ‘if you bring me a beer, I’ll give you a sip.’ It didn’t matter that I was only five years old when this retrieval/reward process started. Of course I wanted to make Daddy happy. Who doesn’t want to please their father, especially a little girl? I would happily bring him cold beers and await my sip. If he turned his back on me, even for a few seconds, the sip would turn easily into a gulp. If Daddy did it, how could it be wrong?

Families that drink together…

That’s where it all began. Alcohol was always around – it was always a part of my father’s life. It was entirely normal to see him with a drink in hand, which is why I knew where all the booze was. I was ten years old and when no one was around, I would drag a chair to that cupboard above the stove and deftly mix a drink, careful to remember how much was in the bottle in order to refill it with water. If a bottle was nearly empty, I’d find one that wasn’t.

My relationship with substance abuse started much younger than most people. Beers with dad beginning at five, crafting cocktails by the age of ten, which is also how old I was when I had my first hangover. Alcohol was so easy to get a hold because it was so normal in our home. A staple, like milk. When I think about this now, after dredging through the horrors of my own alcoholism, I think about what a terrible thing it is for a kid to see alcohol as so incredibly normal…

So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the younger someone starts drinking, the greater their chances are of becoming an addict. In fact, kids who start drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to become dependent or abuse alcohol. Here are some other sobering stats about underage drug use:

  • Nearly 5,000 kids every day in the US under the age of 16 have their first full drink
  • Thirteen is the average age in which 12 to 17 year olds begin to drink
  • In a 30 day period, over 13 percent of eighth-graders reported having at least one drink
  • Underage drinking is estimated to account for between 11% and 20% of the U.S. alcohol market (what!? this surprised even me). Even the lower estimate of 11% represents 3.6 billion drinks each year.

Due to the accessibility of alcohol in my home and my early use of this drug, I’ve always suspected that alcohol was indeed the true gateway drug, so I wasn’t shocked to learn that this is true: alcohol, not marijuana, is the real gateway drug, leading to the use of tobacco and illicit substances. Wisely, researches have implored that school-based substance abuse programming be focusing primarily on “delaying or preventing alcohol use.”

So we know the younger you drink, the more likely you are to develop a drinking problem. We also know that alcohol leads to other drugs. But, as this drug is so culturally acceptable, it’s no wonder that millions of Americans turn out like me or like you or like someone you love.

But how should a parent talk to their children about alcohol use? Click here for some helpful hints. How do you talk to your kids about alcohol? Would any children you know view alcohol as ‘normal’ too?

Photo credit: Sidereal

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