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Parents: It starts with you

December 7, 2018

GREENWICH — Results of a townwide survey of Greenwich youth gave local experts a message they want to pound home: If parents set clear boundaries and good examples when it comes to drinking, their children are less likely to do it.

Parents who went to hear the results of the survey Tuesday night at YWCA Greenwich left with that message, as well as parenting advice from John Hamilton, the CEO of Liberation Programs, which provides substance abuse treatment, and Kimberly Wolfson-Lisack, a licensed clinical social worker for Kids in Crisis, which counsels children and families who need help.

The townwide survey was issued in February by the Greenwich Prevention Council — a coalition of town agencies formed in response to 17 prescription drug overdoses, five of which were fatal, in 2016. Public and private school students reported their experiences with substances, social media and bullying.

“Acknowledging that we had a problem was the most important step toward moving forward,” First Selectman Peter Tesei said of the overdoses. “We’re trying to address what is actually a problem. This is the first of many steps toward achieving a solution.”

Prescription drug use hovers under 1 percent. Experts concluded a larger problem in Greenwich is underage drinking and parent permissiveness: Teens drink too much, and mostly in other people’s homes.

“People don’t see alcohol is a drug, but it was the first one we noticed brain damage in,” said Ingrid Gillespie, the executive director of a countywide advocacy group called Communities 4 Action. “Fairfield County is known for drinking more than the national average.”

Greenwich students drink at a higher rate than do students across the nation, according to the survey. Twenty-eight percent of 10th graders from town reported consuming alcohol in the past 30 days, compared to 20 percent nationwide; and 55 percent of Greenwich seniors drank, compared to 33 percent nationwide.

“Our young people emulate what we do. In many ways, we own this problem, this societal issue. This may seem trite to you, but I don’t think it is,” Tesei said.

The stakes are high, according to Hamilton.

Addiction rates among adults range between 9 percent and 23 percent for tobacco, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, sedatives and cannabis. If children start before 18, addiction rates jump up by 17 percent. If they start before 15, those rates jump up 25-50 percent.

‘Keep showing up’

Students who do not drink said external restrictions — the threat of having their license revoked, their IDs checked or breathing into a breathalyzer — influenced them more than internal protections, such as strict parents or disapproving friends.

Still, Greenwich parents need to do more to teach their children how to make good decisions on their own, Wolfson-Lisack said.

“We don’t step back as our kids get older, we move in,” she said. “We have to be more verbal.”

Children should hear their parents’ voices and see their faces when they encounter risk factors such as drugs and alcohol at parties, which requires more than one conversation, Wolfson-Lisack said.

“You’ve never done enough,” she said. “You never know what’s influencing them. Their thinking is changing.”

Kids get into drugs when they distance themselves from their parents, and when parents and kids are in conflict, Hamilton said.

Instead, he beseeched parents to spend more time with their kids and lead by example.

“Show up. Be involved. Embrace your kid,” Hamilton said. “They’re going to push back, but keep showing up.”

What the students said

In the survey, about half of Greenwich middle- and high schoolers said they never drink alcohol. Of those who reported drinking at all, 22 percent consumed alcohol within the last 30 days. In many cases, they are drinking at another person’s home, a crime for which the homeowners are liable if there are injuries.

Fifty percent of students who drank in the last month said their parents do not disapprove, while 30 percent did so despite parent disapproval.

Statistics on drinking, such as location, source of alcohol and perception of parent disapproval, change with every year students are in high school.

Students think their parents are less likely to condemn binge-drinking in later high school years: 57 percent of juniors and 41 percent of seniors said their parents would think it very wrong to drink four or more drinks on one occasion.

Most Greenwich teens drink in other people’s homes: 14 percent of eighth graders and 29 percent of freshmen sometimes drink in someone else’s home, compared to 45 percent of seniors who sometimes do and 20 percent who often do.

It happens at home: About half of middle school students reported that their parents sometimes let them drink, while 58 percent of parents sometimes let their high school seniors drink.

Kids reported drinking with their parents: About one-third of middle school children sometimes drink with adults, which jumps to 55 percent of seniors who sometimes get to drink with adults.

Friends remain an important source: 10 percent of ninth graders often get their alcohol from their friends, while 35 percent of seniors often get their alcohol from friends.

In the comments section of the survey, students overwhelmingly asked schools to crack down on vaping, but were less likely to condemn underage drinking.

It would be difficult to stop teen drinking, since it occurs in every generation and community, but cracking down on vaping is essential, one teen said.

Greenwich students have access to money to buy alcohol and drugs because parents do not notice charges to their debit and credit cards, another student said. The drug problem in town would go down if parents monitored their kids better, the student continued.

Another student said safety and responsibility are most important, but added that most kids start using substances to get attention.

One student said the drinking problem starts at the top, with parents, and exhorted adults to “practice what they preach.”

Another student admitted to taking an un-prescribed antianxiety drug and drinking occasionally to cope with the pressure of the college application process, exacerbated by a high-achieving parent. The student hopes for more awareness of mental health problems for both parents and children.

Case study: Darien

Emily Larkin, director of the Community Fund of Darien’s Thriving Youth Program, said Greenwich could look to Darien for an example.

Darien has surveyed its students every three years since 2008. The survey and the creation of the community fund made Darien eligible for a state grant, which it received in 2015. The $500,000 grant over five years paid for Larkin’s position and the creation of a plan to address substance abuse.

The organization started a provocative social campaign to address family norms around drinking, and a local marketing agency took the community fund on for free because its biggest customer is an alcoholic beverage distributor.

“We were hearing again and again that the permissiveness was a key factor,” Larkin said.

The campaign educated parents about the impact of drinking on the teenage brain and laws that assign responsibility to adults who allow minors to drink alcohol at social gatherings.

After the campaign, the number of parents who reported that teens other than their child may have consumed alcohol in their house decreased from 17 percent to 4 percent.

“We still have a long way to go, but starting a conversation at home and in the community has been a real point of success and we’re excited for it to continue,” Larkin said.

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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