Parents’ approaches to drinking differ from house to house

By Pat Ferrier
The Coloradon

Samantha Spady never intended to drink herself to death.

With a blood-alcohol level four times the legal limit for driving, the 19-year-old Colorado State University student didn’t know she could die from drinking too much, Spady’s mother, Patty Spady, said in a recent telephone interview.

What parents can do to help their kids

As a parent, ask yourself these questions:

•Do you know how to discuss alcohol use with your child and where to get helpful information?

• Do you know your child’s friends, and do you feel they provide positive influences on your child’s activities?

• Do you know the legal consequences of underage drinking?

• Do you know Colorado’s laws about providing alcohol to anyone under 21?

Warning signs of childhood drinking

• Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability and defensiveness

• School problems: poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action

• Rebelling against family rules

• Switching friends, along with a reluctance to have you get to know the new friends

• A “nothing matters” attitude: sloppy appearance, lack of involvement in former interests and general low energy

• Finding alcohol in your child’s room or backpack, smelling alcohol on his or her breath

• Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordi-nation or slurred speech.

Source: Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free

Tips for parents

• Establish open communication. Make it easy for your teen to talk honestly with you.

• Show you care. Even though young teens might not always show it, they still need to know they are important to their parents. Make it a point to regularly spend one-on-one time with your child – time when you can give him or her your loving, undivided attention. Some activities to share: a walk, a bike ride, a quiet dinner out or a cookie-baking session.

• Draw the line. Set clear, realistic expectations for your child’s behavior. Establish appropriate consequences for breaking rules and consistently enforce them.

• Offer acceptance. Make sure your teen knows that you appreciate his or her efforts as well as ac-complishments. Avoid hurtful teasing or criticism.

• Understand that your child is growing up. This doesn’t mean a hands-off attitude. But as you guide your child’s behavior, also make an effort to respect his or her growing need for independ-ence and privacy.

Tips for communicating with your teen

• Encourage conversation: Encourage your child to talk about whatever interests him or her. Listen without interruption and give your child a chance to teach you something new. Your active listen-ing to your child’s enthusiasms paves the way for conversations about topics that concern you.

• Ask open-ended questions. Encourage your teen to tell you how he or she thinks and feels about the issue you’re discussing. Avoid questions that have a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

• Control your emotions. If you hear something you don’t like, try not to respond with anger. In-stead, take a few deep breaths and acknowledge your feelings in a constructive way.

• Make every conversation a “win-win” experience. Don’t lecture or try to “score points” on your teen by showing how he or she is wrong. If you show respect for your child’s viewpoint, he or she will be more likely to listen to and respect you.

Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Patty Spady said she talked to her daughter about “everything under the sun” before she left Beatrice, Neb., for CSU — including keeping track of a drink so no one could slip anything into it — but they never talked about alcohol poisoning.

It was never on the radar screen.

Now, Patty Spady and the foundation she formed after her daughter’s death are crusading across the nation’s college campuses to spread the message: Alcohol can and does kill.

The message could be too little too late.

Information on alcohol use and abuse must start much earlier than college, experts say, and parents play a crucial role in the process.

But what messages are teens getting from their parents?

Some believe letting older teens have beer or wine at home teaches them to drink responsibly and keeps them safe from drinking and driving.

Others say drinking is illegal for anyone under 21 and sending a message otherwise is irresponsi-ble.

The key, parents say, is simply having the conversation and being involved in their kids’ lives.

“When I’m going to a party, my mom asks, ‘Is there going to be drinking? Then don’t drive home,'” said Cody, 16, a student at Poudre High School. Cody said it’s not uncommon for him to go a party where the parents know the kids are drinking.

“Parents let them drink, but they take the car keys from everyone,” he said. Cody’s mother, Kim, said she’s aware that Cody drinks and prefers that he not sneak around behind her back.

“If there is parental supervision and it’s monitored, I see nothing wrong with it,” Kim said. “If you let your kids drink, when they turn 18, it’s no big deal. When they are 21, it’s no big deal.”

But teaching responsible use of alcohol can be a tough road when those messages collide with millions spent marketing alcohol to look cool, a perception that “everyone is doing it” and liquor that tastes and looks like candy.

As the community wrestles with a culture of alcohol that fueled two nights of rioting, Spady’s death and the death of 20-year-old Bennett Bertoli, who died in December from a deadly combination of booze and drugs, parents, like Spady, are re-evaluating the messages they’re sending through words and actions in their own homes.

Patty Spady urges parents to keep track of what their college-age children are doing just as they did when their kids were in high school.

Ask questions, she said, and don’t assume that just because students are in college they will make mature decisions.

Despite the tragedies at CSU and several other college campuses this year, there is some good news for parents.

The number of Fort Collins teens and college students who say they are drinking is decreasing.

According to a Colorado Youth Survey, 55 percent of Poudre School District seniors reported they had used alcohol within 30 days of the 2003 survey. That’s down from 63 percent in 2001.

And the percent of CSU students who say they do not drink is up from 33 percent in 2002 to 44 percent last year, according to a new university survey.

Gerard and Pennie Nalezny are using Spady’s and Bertoli’s deaths to drive the message of responsible use of alcohol to their 20-year-old daughter — a CSU student — and their 7-year-old son.

“We’ve tried to emphasize the important big picture issues, like don’t drink and drive. And don’t drink at all, because you’re not old enough,” said Gerard Nalezny, former president of Community First Bank.

“My biggest fear as a parent is the drinking and driving, whether it’s her or whether with friends,” he said.

While sending the message of responsible drinking once their children become adults, the Naleznys also have practiced their own advice.

“Our thought has been trying to set the example of responsible use of alcohol.”

Maureen and Rich Harter, of Fort Collins, made the decision when their kids were little to not have hard liquor in the house.

“We have just always told our kids we don’t approve of underage drinking, we won’t support it and no one does it in our house,” said Maureen Harter, who has a 20-year-old son, Daniel, and a 16-year-old daughter, Laura, a junior at Fossil Ridge High School.

“We’ve given them the information we think they need, but they still have to make their own decisions,” Maureen Harter said.

The Harters also monitor the alcohol that comes into their home.

“If we have a party or something, we might buy some or invite people to bring their own, but it leaves with the guests,” Maureen Harter said.

Part of it, she said, is that it’s just too hard to keep track of bottles of booze. “You don’t always remember to check the bottle at the back of the liquor cabinet. If the kids are drinking … they can put water in it and fill it back up. It’s much easier to know if you bought a six-pack, and oh my, three of them are gone.”

Rich Harter, a self-described party animal in high school and college, saw firsthand what alcohol abuse did to his father and grandfather, who left his family when Harter’s father was young.

“I started drinking in grade school. I had my first drinks in sixth grade and used to go to bars in eighth grade,” he said. With a drinking age of then 18, getting into bars was easier.

“I had very little parental oversight. I did what I wanted when I wanted.” He knew he wanted to be a different kind of parent when he had kids.

That meant not glorifying his party days. “We didn’t want them making choices because Dad did it,” he said. The Harters also have drawn a clear line concerning alcohol use. “We have not let the kids have beer or wine at home. They’ve been told when they’re of age they can … but not until then. We haven’t been allowing them to experiment at home.”

Teaching responsible use of alcohol begins at home at an early age, said Rob Pehkonen, owner of Maytag stores in Fort Collins and Greeley and parent of two young boys.

“We have started to ingrain in them that the abusive use of any substance isn’t cool,” Pehkonen said.

Rob and his wife, Heidi, have alcohol in the home — a glass of wine — while stressing there’s a difference between wine with dinner and drinking to the point you can’t stand up.

“Alcohol is one of those things that you can be standing around enjoying the time drinking, drinking, drinking, but your blood-alcohol level can be at a point where it’s dangerous for your system. It’s a sneaky drug.”

Patty Spady agreed. She takes to task the media for fixating on the 30 to 40 drinks her daughter reportedly consumed prior to her death.

She does not believe her daughter drank that much but also takes issue with tying her death to a number.

“That turns binge drinking into a numbers game,” which is dangerous, she said.

“Kids start thinking there is no way they could drink that many drinks, so they think they’ll be safe with 15 or 17,” she said. “They don’t realize that everyone is different, and what one kid can drink can kill another.”

Kurtis Royer, a mental-health specialist with Connections — a partnership between the Health District of Larimer County and Larimer Center for Mental Health — said it’s important for parents to send a message to their children that alcohol is illegal until they reach 21. “It’s illegal in society, and it’s important to teach kids they have to adhere to those rules of society,” he said.

Those are the house rules Candy Wirt has enforced for her three kids, one of whom is now an adult.

“No minor friends of my children will be drinking in my home, period,” she said. “I don’t care if they have their family’s permission … it is against the law.”

Wirt, a board member of Team Fort Collins, is founder of the Safe Homes project, a directory of homes where underage drinking is not allowed. The project was later taken over by Team Fort Collins.

While the message of no underage drinking has been sent, Wirt said she still wants her children to be safe.

“If they’re out and drunk and need a ride, they need to call us,” she said. “I’d rather they be alive.”

The ultimate decisions, however, rest with her children, said Linda Maher, also a Team Fort Collins board member.

“Even under the best situations, it can happen,” particularly with peer pressure being what it is, she said.

“If my kid does (drink), it is ultimately their decision and there will definitely be consequences to their action.

“It’s a trust issue … they didn’t trust their instincts and they didn’t trust their instinct to get out of there.”

Coloradoan reporters Kevin Duggan and Kelli Lackett contributed.
Originally published Feb. 7, 2005