It was a decade ago that Michael Phelps visited several local high schools to warn students against underage drinking in the aftermath of his first drunken-driving charge. Now the most decorated Olympian ever faces drunken-driving charges again, is entering a treatment program and won't participate in the next world championship.
His arrest can serve as an opening for parents to talk to their tweens and teens about the dangers of abusing alcohol.
But experts say the message has to be ongoing. It should come before, not after, consequences. And it should come from parents, not just celebrities.
Talk to, not at, them
Parents' frank conversation about alcohol is what most impresses youth, according to Lisa M. Spicknall, Maryland program director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"They may pretend like they are not listening, but they actually are," said Spicknall, citing outcomes from a MADD program that supports parents in educating their kids on alcohol. Seventy percent of youths participating in the program said their decision to drink or not to drink was influenced primarily by their parents. There was a 30 percent reduction in drinking among kids whose parents spoke to them regularly about alcohol, said Spicknall.
But she emphasizes: Do not judge, and invite the kids into the conversation.
"If they ask, 'Why isn't it OK?' explain that our brain isn't fully developed until we are 25. So we don't know long-term consequences. … If they ask to go to a party, take that as your cue to open a two-way conversation about alcohol," said Spicknall.
Parents need to explain what will happen if their child does drink, but it's helpful to have kids involved in the process.
"When you ask for their feedback, you empower them to make their own choices. And by clearly defining outcomes, they know what they would be losing, so it gives them incentive — they have more control," said Spicknall.
No alcohol at parties
Some parents think allowing kids to drink in their homes gives parents more control. They know where the children are, and they can confiscate car keys.
"But this doesn't work," said Elaine Lawton, prevention specialist at the Baltimore County Health Department. "Besides that you are sending a double message, kids often bring a second set of keys. When the alcohol is low, or for any other reason they want to leave, they go."
Help kids decide what to say if someone asks them to drink, suggests Kurt Gregory Erickson, president and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. The Virginia-based nonprofit provides education on underage drinking but is best known for its free cab service, SoberRide.
"As the National Institutes of Health points out, teens say they prefer quick one-liners that allow them to dodge a drink without making a big scene," said Erickson. A suggestion is, 'I'd rather have a soda.' Or something as simple as, 'No thanks; I don't drink.' "
But once they are in the moment, it is not as easy to say no, especially for middle school-age kids, according to Lawton.
"Young teens always tell me if they were offered alcohol at a friends' or the bathroom in school they would say no. I ask, 'What if they say you are a loser?' They still tell me, 'I would say no.' They don't understand the pressure until they face it. So have them practice the conversation," she said.
When others drink
"Even zero-tolerance messaging should be steeped in the reality that, at some point, many, if not most, teens are offered alcohol. So the conversation should include guidance to mitigate risk rather than compound the situation as would happen if your child were, for instance, to ride with an impaired driver," said Erickson. He advises parents to make sure their kids know they will support them — including picking them up from a party if their friends have been drinking.
Hearing about someone else's serious consequences typically has only short-term effects if any, according to Lawton.
But she encourages using those stories as an opportunity for teens and preteens to express what is important to them. "Ask, 'What do you think about this?' Get their response and feelings about consequences they have seen and heard. Ask them about alternatives, and let them draw conclusions," said Lawton.
Lead by example
"What they see is what's real and tangible, and they can count on as the truth," said Paul Martin, case manager at The Baltimore Station, an adult residential treatment program that also offers youth addictions educational programs. "Problems don't start with a drink. They end with a drink. You have to begin with focusing on behaviors, and choices learned by observing behaviors."