By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“One in five sixth graders in our state is drinking alcohol now. But only five percent of sixth grade parents think their kid is drinking.”
Sixth graders – drinking? A startling thought — maybe not in the abstract, but it is if you know a kid that age. They’re on the edge of teenhood, and yet they still have frequent moments sparking the thought, “Really, they’re still just kids.”
The quote is from Chris Volkmann, an Olympia mom who will be speaking at Madison Middle School in West Seattle on April 8 with her son Toren Volkmann; the two have written a book together, “Binge to Blackout.” Before you switch off into “oh, just more preachy stuff” mode, listen to Chris’s invitation: “Just come out and talk with us.”
Toren is 26 now but truly lucky to be alive. I hoped to talk with him before writing this story but missed a connection; nonetheless, Chris’s side of the story is no less compelling – and if you have a child of any age, her suggestions for a non-typical way of discussing drinking with your kid(s) are priceless.
In some respects, Chris’s story sounds all too typical: Her son was drinking right under his parents’ noses, and the alarm bells just didn’t ring that loudly, for a long time. She recalls that he was 15, and a freshman in high school, when “the first time a light went off in brain that something was going on, was when we caught Toren intoxicated and the next morning he didn’t even recall it … My husband told me he was blacked out. I didn’t understand what a blackout was.”
During his high-school years, they caught him a few times, and he even encountered law enforcement, but that didn’t stop him: “That was the second major red flag,” she explains, “that he was drinking without caring what the consequences were and there were consequences leveraged, (but) he was very interested in continuing to abuse alcohol.”
Where did he get it, we wondered? Sometimes from the family’s garage, “if we had beer out there, and he could take not enough to be noticed. Or – he got a fake ID, and he ordered it on the Internet.” Or sometimes, he and his friends would ask someone outside a store to buy it for them, or enlist an older sibling. Whatever it took, he managed to get it.
But you’ve heard that story before. It seems natural for parents to want to “look the other way,” Chris acknowledges. So — maybe you haven’t heard all the reasons why it’s not a good thing for young people to drink. Not even in their later teens. A focus of Chris’s advocacy is pointing out that the human brain is still developing until age 23: “Toren and I like to talk about how much research has changed. … A lot of parents don’t realize how much damage can be done. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to form – and that’s at age 20 for girls, age 23 for boys. That’s a huge length of time to be susceptible to extreme damage.”
Susceptibility to addiction also comes with earlier drinking: “Kids that start heavy drinking around 14 or 15 increase their chances of addiction by five times.” If her son hadn’t started drinking so young, she thinks he might be able to have recovered to some semblance of normalcy and been able to drink socially in adulthood, but because of how young he was when the alcohol first hit and “rewired” his brain, there’s no chance of that – he has to abstain.
And “young” is the keyword here. We have reported previously on the work of the Southwest Healthy Youth Partnership (which meets tonight, 7 pm, SW Youth and Family Services) and its findings in a communitywide survey (results here) suggesting that parents start talking with their kids at elementary age. Chris concurs: “That’s a really good age for a parent to go and start envisioning what could happen and what the social pressures are for kids to drink” – before they get to that sixth-grade age mentioned at the start of this story. And younger kids may be more open to “having a discussion.”
So, we ask, how to open that discussion – at any age – without getting the eye roll, the “yeah, yeah, you’ve gone through all this before, I know, I know” response?
Chris replies: “In our book we have a little section of questions … to ask before your kid goes to college. These could be questions you could start around middle school.” She lists some of these open-ended questions, suggesting you might ask them periodically, to see if your child/ren’s answers change:
**How will you decide whether or not to drink?
**What will you do if you find one of your friends passed out?
**What will you do if you’re asked to ‘babysit’ someone who has drank too much?
“There are so many opportunities for parents to discuss it without pointing the finger and lecturing,” Chris says. Even back to the matter of that scientific data regarding the brain forming till age 23 — “Talk about the brain, and (if applicable) genetics in the family that might set someone up for trouble … you can forestall an abysmal outcome.”
We asked Chris how the “outcome” for her and Toren turned into a book. She says both had been journal writers, and comparing their journals from the same time periods, that led to some painful realizations later, such as one journal passage of his that she said “horrified” her: “I went back and looked in my journals, nine years of journal writing, and discovered how much of it I had ignored, or … if we put journals of our life together, it wouldn’t even look like the same family. I had, I thought, this great family with boys who rarely got into trouble, but my son was heavily abusing alcohol … this sounds like sick humor but it was almost hilarious that I had been so out of tune with what was happening with my son. Then when I started reading all the research, I felt even more stupid, finding the scientific data … It’s a lot like what we’ve learned about pregnant women and drinking over the past 20 years, they can’t because the brain is still developing. The second largest development time for the human brain is adolescence. That’s a reason for parents to think, maybe I need to protect my child more, and talk to them more.”
And the West Seattle event is about that: Talking. As my chat with Chris concludes, she says it again: “Just come out to dialogue with us. It doesn’t mean you’re showing up because your kid has a drinking problem. Just come out and talk.”
Chris and Toren will be at Madison Middle School at 7 pm Wednesday, April 8; you can find out more about their book at bingetoblackout.com.