Why is Spring the most important time to talk with your teens?

April 1, 2019 • community

School of Public Health & Texas Center for Health Disparities Community Blog

Why is Spring the most important time to talk with your teens?
“I came to MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) in the months after Helen Marie died a sudden, violent death by an alcohol- and marijuana-impaired teen driver. Just as suddenly, we faced the impossible tasks of funeral arrangements and criminal court proceedings, of organ donation and boxing up her things forever. We faced a grief so profound it hardly seemed survivable. Until that sunny afternoon in our hometown of Miami, my husband John and I had our dream family: a boy and a girl, named for each of us. John and John. Helen and Helen Marie. Our daughter came first. When John followed three years later, Helen Marie was thrilled, until she learned he wasn’t going back.  But she learned to love him, deeply. They were imperfect, well-adjusted children. They were everything my husband and I had prayed for.

On June 1, 2000, our dream family was torn apart. It was a normal day, except that Helen Marie was nervous. She was going to direct a school play the next day, and although she’d acted many times, this was a new role for her. She wanted to go rollerblading to work off her stress. I wanted her to stay home; I’d been traveling for a few days, and we had so much to catch up on. But as she laced up her rollerblades, she told me not to worry. She stuck to a regular route. She used the crosswalks. She would be right back.

John, 13, wanted to go, too, but she asked me to keep him home because she wanted to go fast. That was Helen Marie – always quick. We called her HM because it was so much faster.

At the end of the driveway, she spun to face me. She blew me a kiss and told me she loved me. And she took off, blonde hair flying behind her. This is how I choose to remember her.”

–  This is Helen Witty’s story, one of the many found on MADD’s blog.

National survey data shows that among high school students during the past 30 days, 30% reported drinking alcohol, 14% reported engaging in a heavy-episodic drinking (i.e. 4/5 drinks or more for women/men, respectively), 6% drove after drinking alcohol, and 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.  Although alcohol use in general is problematic in this age group, specific events such as spring break, prom, and graduation have been associated with excessive alcohol use among teens. Our research has shown that these events are particularly harmful above and beyond typical drinking, as these events are associated with a sharp increase in alcohol use and related consequences, especially among those who normally do not drink heavily. These event-specific windows of risk are particularly important to consider during adolescence as negative consequences in this population usually result from short-term heavy drinking episodes rather than from long-term heavy use over an extended period of time.

Photo: Informed Families https://www.informedfamilies.org/blog/florida-high-schools-how-to-keep-your-prom-drug-free

Why the focus?
Events such as spring break, prom, and graduation are all known windows of risk and as such are optimal times to use event-specific prevention. Event-specific prevention are prevention strategies that assume timing and content of the intervention are important in targeting known windows of risk. On a practical level, these high-risk events are generally predictable as it is relatively easy to determine when most specific events will occur far in advance (e.g., spring break, prom, graduation). Second, specific drinking events are usually time limited and therefore if we know in advance when teens are going to be more likely to engage in behavior that could harm them, we should focus efforts on those events.

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What can be done?
In line with event-specific prevention, MADD recently rolled out an expanded version of PowerTalk 21, a program that focuses on the importance of parents taking advantage of all opportunities to talk to their teensline  and set family rules about underage drinking and using other drugs. Although teens spend an increasing amount of time with their friends, parents remain an important source of support and continue to play a key role in the lives of their adolescent. Parents influence about tough issues like underage drinking and drug use are likely to have a substantial impact.  This year, the PowerTalk21 program targets the period between March 1 and May 31, which includes several high-risk events for underage alcohol and other drug use including spring break, 4/20, prom, and graduation.  MADD encourages parents to use the tips and tools provided in MADD’s Power of Parents materials to include both alcohol as well as other drugs, all of which can cause long-term damage on the growing mind and body. You can get involved through workshops, social media, media releases, and local events. MADD hopes to reach as many parents as possible to get them talking to their teens about underage alcohol and other drug use during known high-risk periods of time; thus putting event-specific prevention into action.

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Melissa A. Lewis, PhD, Professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems, School of Public Health, University of North Texas Health Science Center
Dana M. Litt, PhD, Associate Professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems, School of Public Health, University of North Texas Health Science Center
Kim Morris, National Vice President of Programs, Mother’s Against Drunk Driving

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute On Minority Health And Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U54MD006882. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.