Talking Back

Talking Back

The Coalition for Youth of Lower Merion and Narberth's Youth Advisory Council (YAC) members discuss drinking, driving and parents.  The teen panelists represented eight area high schools.

Photo of the Youth Advisory Council panel, from left: freshman Eva Wyner of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, junior Haley Banks of the Shipley School, junior Haydn Hornstein-Platt of Lower Merion High School, junior Jaslyn McIntosh of the Baldwin School, sophomore Peter Dissinger of Friends' Central School, sophomore Robbie Warshaw of Lower Merion, sophomore Sanjay Narayan of the Haverford School and sophomore Terry Rossi of the Haverford School. Missing from the shot are Allie Freiwald, the Agnes Irwin School; and junior Nora Landis-Shack, Haverford College, the group's mentor. Photo by John Beeler

It's a truism: teenagers try alcohol. The trouble is some get addicted and some, through drunk driving, get killed, as we are reminded graphically with exhibits of smashed cars every spring before prom night. So how realistically are Main Line parents to deal with it?

That was the topic of the Coalition for Youth of Lower Merion and Narberth's "Talking Back" teen panel discussion with parents in the audience at the Haverford School.

Co-facilitator Stephanie Newberg, co-director of the coalition's Youth Advisory Council with fellow Main Line social worker and panel moderator Paula Singer, dove right into the topic on everybody's minds with questions about which the 10-person panel, representing eight high schools and one college, had thought in advance of answers, which they said for the first time that night.

Those questions included: why do teens drink? Why do more upperclassmen than younger teens drink? How should you get a ride home if you've been drinking or your friend has and thus is not safe to drive? How should parents handle a teen coming home drunk? Where and when do kids drink? And are friends a good or bad influence?

Answers to the first question were: because of the pressure of academics and, pervasive on the Main Line, very competitive college admissions, dealing with the stress of growing up including starting high school, and just to know the experience of getting drunk because teens experiment. Interestingly one panelist thought "peer pressure is overrated."

Why do more juniors and seniors drink than eighth-graders? Elementary: they're closer to legal drinking age so they look older and it's easier for them to get booze, they have older siblings in college they can hang out and party with, and, very important considering the real threat of driving deaths, they can drive to parties now.

Regarding getting a ride, besides the option of public transportation, the coalition encourages parents to be available to drive their children home at any time of the night, no questions asked at the time (later is another matter). Safety is or ought to be number one. Of course part of the problem is, especially when drunk, kids are more worried about getting in trouble than being safe.

On that note the coalition has a "Make the Call, Take the Call" program in which teens "make an upfront agreement with someone you can count on as a lifeline – someone who agrees to get you home safely."

As for what parents should do if they find a teen drunk, understandably the panelists encouraged some leniency: a three-strikes rule for example rather than instant grounding, which doesn't get to the bottom of the possible problem. Suppressing the symptom only makes it worse (the child rebels and drinks more for example).

Panelists also thought it was good when parents accepted their kids' experimentation within limits, being honest about/sharing their own drinking past and present, and not demonizing alcohol (forbidden-fruit psychology), so young adults can learn their limit with alcohol and to enjoy it responsibly, not abusing it just to fit it, relieve stress or spite their parents.

Regarding where and when, panelists' answers varied a lot, from the scene right out of the movies where the rich kid's parents are out for the night so "party at the mansion" to simply a few kids in a basement "with nothing better to do."

Also, it's not like the whole grade goes to huge mansion parties every weekend, said another panelist: "I can count on my fingers" the people in her grade who drink, she said. Another said all her friends had tried nothing stronger than marijuana.

Friends can be a bad influence but a good one too. Girls "travel in packs," one girl noted, and keep each other safe: "I don't know of any of my friends who have had to go home alone." A boy noted: "Friends have a great respect for each other." Another girl said that school demands made her cut out drinking and smoking and it changed her circle of friends because it was hard to keep up with friends who party all the time when you don't. She didn't end up friendless. She just ended up with new friends.

The panel discussion's jumping-off point was the coalition's third community survey of teens' attitudes and behavior, the Student Support Card, from the Search Institute in Minneapolis. The survey covers far more than drinking, such as: does the community seem to value teens and do teens feel valued? But everybody wants to talk about drinking, understandable given the life-or-death immediate consequences.

In 1999 "right after Columbine" the Lower Merion School District's then-superintendent, David Magill, started the coalition, noted the coalition's president, psychotherapist Kate Cornwell of Narberth, at the start of the discussion. Obviously this was to prevent similar tension and a similar massacre here. With that in mind the coalition started the surveys every few years: 2010-11's results were compared to a baseline, the 2005-6 results.

The survey has a list of 40 "assets" to teens.

Some of the results, quoting Singer's press release:

• 25 percent of students reported that they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking.

• More than 52 percent of surveyed high-school students had used alcohol in the past month.

• Only 37 percent are willing to ask their parents for advice.

• Only 26 percent feel that their community values them.

Among the survey's good news:

• 79 percent of our kids say they have families who give them much love and support.

And on that happy note, Singer concluded the evening.

The panelists and schools were: Haley Banks, Shipley; Peter Dissinger, Friends' Central; Allie Freiwald, Agnes Irwin; Haydn Hornstein-Platt, Lower Merion; Nora Landis-Shack (mentor), Haverford College; Jaslyn McIntosh, Baldwin; Sanjay Narayan; Haverford School; Terry Rossi, Haverford School; Robbie Warshaw; Lower Merion; and Eva Wyner, Barrack.

Survey-takers included eighth-graders from Bala Cynwyd and Welsh Valley middle schools. Other students surveyed were from Harriton High School.

The other co-facilitator was family therapist Rick Shugart.

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