By Rev. Brad Ulgenes
The recent articles by the Havre Daily News on teenage drinking revealed the "sobering" challenges we face as a community in raising healthy and responsible youth. Rather than wringing our hands in despair, I offer three building blocks of hope for consideration and action.
Last spring middle school and high school students took an Asset Inventory created by Search Institute. Their research, based upon surveys of over 100,000 youth, reveals that there are 40 developmental assets that have a critical influence on young people's lives and lead to healthy and responsible behavior. These assets also have tremendous power to protect youth from harmful choices and at-risk behavior.
The survey defined problem alcohol use as "using alcohol three or more times in the past 30 days or getting drunk once or more in the past two weeks." The national research shows that 54 percent of youth with one to 10 assets engage in problem alcohol use. In contrast, only 3 percent of youth with 31 to 40 assets engage in this at-risk behavior. So, one strategy for lowering the use of alcohol by teenagers is to build assets in youth that will lead to positive healthy behaviors.
This fall, our community will be reviewing the results of the asset survey and developing strategies for building assets in youth on a communitywide basis. We can join over 500 communities that are intentionally working to help young people succeed and lower at-risk behavior, such as alcohol use. I invite you to come to this meeting.
The second key ingredient is setting of boundaries for youth by parents and adults and modeling healthy behavior. In the United States 84 percent of adults believe it is important for parents to enforce clear and consistent rules and boundaries. Studies reveal only 42 percent of parents do it. The purpose of boundaries is to help young people safely learn and grow. Helpful boundaries communicate "I love you" to children.
The laws against teenage drinking are clear. I applaud the strict enforcement and "no tolerance" attitude by law enforcement personnel. Both youth and adults who violate these laws must bear the consequences. Parents do no favor to youth by "paying their bill for an MIP" or fighting the consequences of an MIP. It promotes irresponsible behavior.
Most importantly, parents and adults must lead by example. We teach and lead by what we do as well as what we say. Adults who tell youth "don't drink" but then by their lifestyle abuse alcohol by getting drunk, sponsoring illegal "home parties," or spending evenings or weekends at the bar instead of with their kids, are sending a clear message "to live to drink." If we as a community have alcohol at all of our social gatherings, we are saying to our youth "to be social or to be adult means to drink alcohol." We adults must live lives of integrity as we set boundaries for our youth.
I believe youth are crying out for meaning and purpose in their lives. I believe that faith in Christ fills the spiritual void each is searching for. In the face of Sept. 11, increasing youth suicides, and this violent world, our youth are longing for peace and ultimate answers for the suffering they see and experience. Alcohol is used to numb the pain or generate excitement.
St. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless, until we find our rest in thee." God can give hope when things look hopeless. The second step of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program reads, "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." The third step says, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him." God is a central part of the treatment process for those who have problems with alcohol. I support more funding for alcohol treatment programs for youth.
I believe that God in Christ can give healing, hope and health to our youth struggling with alcohol. There are many kind and compassionate people in our churches who can reach out to your youth. We in the church need to recommit ourselves to helping our youth find and experience God's love and power in our families and churches.
A community asset-building approach, setting and abiding by consistent boundaries, trusting in God these are three resources for helping youth and their struggle with alcohol.
The Rev. Brad Ulgenes is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Havre and is a member of the Mental Health Awareness Council.