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Teens & Alcohol: It's Worse Than You Think

The problem is worse than many parents realize: Teenagers under the influence are more likely to commit crimes that get them into significant legal trouble—and in Connecticut penalties are getting stiffer for parents who allow their children to drink.


This article is not going to be a gentle primer about how to find common ground with your teenager or how to be your teenager’s best friend: For professionals who work in the vortex of life, that spinning maelstrom where clients and patients, particularly teenagers, have become drinkers or drug users, there is no common ground.

Our communities must learn that no such thing exists when it comes to educating ourselves and our families about the multiple consequences of underage drinking and drug use.  

The Judicial District of Stamford and Norwalk, which includes Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, Westport, Weston and Wilton, appears to have more alcohol-related teenage deaths than any judicial district in the State, based upon cases prosecuted here over the past several years and information from prosecutions elsewhere in the state.

According to a 2008 study conducted by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and information compiled by the Lower Fairfield County Regional Action Council, Fairfield County had the highest percentage of motor vehicle fatalities involving alcohol of any county in Connecticut.

Although it is common during the discussion of underage drinking and alcohol for people to focus on driving while intoxicated, what we do not grasp is that alcohol is a contributing factor to the majority of arrests in the state of Connecticut.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, (CASA), a think tank that has been studying alcohol and substance abuse for more than 20 years in the United States, reports that in 2006, alcohol and other drugs were involved in 78 percent of violent crimes, 83 percent of property crimes and 77 percent of public order and probation/parole violations.

To be more pointed, my more than two-decades-old criminal defense practice in Fairfield County shows unequivocally that when our teenage children are under the influence of alcohol, they are far more likely to commit crimes.

When our teenagers drink, which is usually at parties in private homes, they frequently fight.  These are not pushing and shoving matches, but often brutal beatings that require emergency medical care, and hospitalization and sometimes end in a teenager being permanently injured or handicapped.

Just as with adults, alcohol decreases inhibition and can increase aggression.  Alcohol use among teenagers results in sexual assault and the terrible emotional and legal consequences that follow.

A second-degree sexual assault charge in Connecticut carries a possible 10-year jail sentence, and first-degree s sexual assault carries a possible 20-year sentence.

The criminal charge of transfer of alcohol to a minor, which can be committed by a minor, is an unclassified felony.  The ripple effect of a felony arrest can ruin a teenager’s educational future and the realization of meaningful, stable employment.   

Perhaps more compelling than the legal consequences of teenage alcohol use is the medical evidence that documents the susceptibility of the teenage brain to the effects of alcohol, as well as the permanent cognitive damage that it can cause.

According to Clea McNeeley, MA, DrPH and Jayne Blanchard, writing for the Center for Adolescent Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health:

Recent brain research with magnetic resonance imaging suggests that alcohol impacts adolescents differently than it does adults. Young people are more vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol on the hippocampus—the part of the brain that regulates working memory and learning.

The authors also wrote:

Sedation in response to alcohol is one of the ways the body protects itself, since it is impossible to keep drinking once asleep or passed out. Teenagers are able to stay awake longer with higher blood alcohol levels than older drinkers can. This biological difference allows teens to drink more, thereby exposing themselves to greater cognitive impairment and perhaps brain damage from alcohol poisoning.—(Clea McNeeley, MA, DrPh and Jayne Blanchard, "Effects of Alcohol, Tobacco and Drugs on the Developing Adolescent Brain,"   2005)

It is an opportune time for parents to learn about and discuss underage alcohol use now, during Alcohol Awareness Month. However, our mandate as parents is to be vigilant always.

Our sons and daughters are going to their proms.  They are going to their pre-prom and post-prom parties. There will be alcohol. There will be drugs. There is no such thing as safely, intelligently introducing our sons and daughters under the age of 21 at home to alcohol.

The consequences to their health, their future and the health and futures of others when parents tolerate or fail to prevent alcohol use are absolutely devastating.

Furthermore, in Connecticut, we are moving toward increasing penalties and financial judgments against property owners who negligently fail to police their own homes and properties.  It is past time for all of us to wake up, look ourselves in the eyes, look our sons and daughters in the eyes and smell the alcohol. 

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Matthew M. Maddox of New Canaan is an attorney specializing in criminal defense and serious personal injury litigation. He has offices and .

Editor's note: See also these recent articles:

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