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Buzz-free Prom and Graduation Parties? Let's Create Substance ed That Actually Works

An absolutely free solution: start telling the truth to your kids about why we enjoy our substances.
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This prom and grad season, parents at high schools across the country poured hundreds of thousands of dollars--likely millions all told, with the typical party cost running from $10,000-$60,000--and countless volunteer hours into posh post-prom and post-graduation parties designed to entice teens to forego alcohol and drugs for one evening. But does all the dough delegated to big-ticket giveaways (flat-screen TVs, mini-fridges and other lures to get kids to stay at the party), catered cuisine, elaborate party themes replete with magicians and DJs and over-the-top décor, and the free limos and buses that ferry teens to and fro make a dent in our nation's disturbing teen substance abuse rates?

Probably not.

Certainly, these efforts by parents and businesses is laudable and likely does prevent some drunk-driving injuries and deaths on prom and graduation nights, which is the prime focus of the "safe prom/graduation" movement (and which helps explain why insurance companies, liquor makers, and DUI lawyers are often major backers). But we can do a lot better, with a lot less money, if we did two simple things: Educate our children ourselves by telling the truth about the role of alcohol and drugs in our own lives, and demanding that our schools do the same, radically revamping substance abuse instruction into something that kids listen to instead of laughing at. Trying to save kids on prom and graduation night is grand, but what about giving them the skills to resist substance abuse and dependence the other 364 days of the year?

With more effective alcohol and drug ed, perhaps we won't raise yet another generation of Americans who daily live out the ethos that you can't really have fun without a drink or doobie or downer. Our kids' substance resistance doesn't look too hopeful these days: Kids drink early (39% of 8th graders) and hearty (90% binge-drink), and they dig drugs. This recent snapshot shows 34% of 10th graders have done illegal drugs and by senior year, nearly half; by then one in seven students also abuses legal amphetamines, sedatives, and opiates.

We really can change this. Our kids desperately need better guidance to resist alcohol and drug dependence, and every parent (and non-parent) desperately wants that outcome. As a society, we're already pouring huge expenditures into perceived solutions, from lavish "safe" parties to bloated federal initiatives such as DARE, the $1 billion leading school program roundly deemed a failure. We all know about the fallout from substance abuse: the increased incidence of date rape and bad sexual choices, the blown-off academics and skill-building, the risky, sometimes deadly behavior. Here's one way to visualize it: an estimated annual $53 million in everything from added accidents to treatment programs--and that's just for underage alcohol abuse, let alone the drugs. Why not make some meaningful changes now to alleviate all that pain and tragedy?

*Here's an absolutely free solution: simply start telling the truth to your kids about why you drink and take any legal or illegal drugs. Also, let's acknowledge that we seem to enjoy our substances. When kids are surrounded--in their own houses and neighborhoods and in the media and ads--by adults who clearly dig drinking, drugs, and smoking, why would any of them buy the message of "No, no--not for you"? And how can kids abide drunk-driving screeds from 21-and-up adults who are responsible for 88% of drunk-driving fatalities?

The point here is not to stop all substance use, but be candid about why we turn to it so often. The idea is to teach kids to identify their feelings, and at least most of the time, act on them in more positive and healthy ways. Wouldn't it teach kids much more about problem-solving to say something like this: "I'm very frustrated and anxious because my boss got mad at me unfairly again and there was bad traffic on the way home. Yesterday, I dealt with it by having some beers, but today I'm going to try unwinding by taking a walk in the park with you. And I'll strategize more about finding a different job or viewing my job situation differently so I'm not frustrated so often."

Sure, this interaction can sound naïve on its own, but every change has to begin somewhere and undertaken with the belief that it will pay off eventually--for both your kid and you. Picture what's possible: that truthful interactions can--and should--be a routine part of all household conversations, particularly as teens begin experiencing more and more of the adult world. Consider all the reasons people become dependent on alcohol and drugs: feelings of pain, sadness, insecurity, anxiety, and boredom, typically caused by some variation of problems with money, relationships, and jobs. Teens would be fascinated to hear about how we cope with these challenges, and would become so much better prepared for these issues if caring adults shared and explored together both problems and solutions.

*When you have fun without substance use, make those occasions explicit and public. If we want kids to "party" (interesting how the term "to party" implies excessive substance use) and have a great time without alcohol and drugs, then we should do the same. For your next party, barbecue, or restaurant visit, skip the booze, and make sure your kids know you had a good time anyway. Do the same for everyday situations--again, it may seem awkward at first ("I had a great time at the dinner table with y'all, and I didn't have any wine!"), but how else can we demonstrate that life can be plenty fun without substances?

*Acknowledge that what we're doing now isn't really working, and that we need better substance education immediately. Seniors at Boston's Saugus High got the drunk-driving works this spring: A fake drunk-driving accident with fake-blood-smeared actors and actual totaled cars was staged for their viewing, and at the school-sponsored post-prom harbor cruise party, bags were checked and breathalyzer tests given at entry. Yet an allegedly drunk Saugus senior hit two early-morning walkers on May 16th as he drove home from the cruise with friends, killing one woman and critically injuring another.

We need to say out loud that the just-say-no abstinence approach doesn't work for most kids (and certainly not adults) and, more importantly, recognize that "harm reduction" tactics work just fine for kids of all ages on all kinds of issues, including difficult ones like sex. Take sweets: Virtually all parents (and health educators) themselves delight in desserts, but teach kids that we need to use sugar sparingly because of negative side effects. We can do something similar with alcohol and drugs: Acknowledge their allure while prescribing tactics to minimize their harm and find healthier (think substituting fresh fruit or a pleasing distraction for a persistent candy craving) alternatives. Harm reduction curriculum and parent materials are readily available, and we need to summon the courage to insist our schools adopt a more effective and realistic approach.

If we're lucky, this prom and graduation season will pass with no further fatalities. But if we're smart, this prom season will mark the beginning of substance dependence education that makes a real difference for all our children.