Orange County

Kids start drinking early. Here’s when the state wants you to start talking to them about it

A fatal collision two years ago has renewed efforts to curb underage drinking. This is one of two vehicles involved in the collision, in which a former UNC student drove drunk the wrong way down Interstate 85, striking another car and killing three people and injuring a fourth.
A fatal collision two years ago has renewed efforts to curb underage drinking. This is one of two vehicles involved in the collision, in which a former UNC student drove drunk the wrong way down Interstate 85, striking another car and killing three people and injuring a fourth. File photo

A little effort can go a long way. That’s the message behind a state campaign encouraging parents to have short, regular conversations about underage drinking with their kids.

“Parents, your children are looking to you for advice and direction as they face decisions about drinking,” said Elinor Landess, Campus and Community Coalition director at the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership last week. “You deserve to have a place at the table as your children navigate these challenges.”

The N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission’s initiative is statewide, but the “Talk It Out” campaign has particular resonance in a college town such as Chapel Hill, where reports of fake IDs and underage drinking surge when school is in session.

Local police, UNC officials and downtown business owners have cracked down on underage drinking in the two years since 20-year-old Chandler Kania, a former UNC student, drove drunk the wrong way down Interstate 85, striking another car and killing three.

Kania pleaded guilty to several charges, including driving while intoxicated. He was ultimately convicted of three counts of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to up to 16 years in prison.

Judge Henry Hight Jr. said at the time he hoped the trial would push more parents to talk to their children about underage drinking.

Start early

According to data gathered by the ABC Commission, parents who may want to tackle the topic often feel unprepared to do so. Advocates say parents should begin sharing age-appropriate information with children as early as age 8, and aim for short, ongoing talks over long lectures.

“You need to talk openly, honestly, thoroughly, and often about this issue, and believe it or not, you can make a difference,” said Terrance Merriweather, with the Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement. He said parents should see themselves as “first responders” when it comes to raising the issue with kids.

“Kids and young people start drinking as early as age 14, and the vast majority – 94 percent of North Carolina’s youth – think underage drinking is a problem,” ABC Commission Chairman Zander Guy told the coalition of law enforcement officers, doctors, educators and advocates gathered in Chapel Hill to roll out the newest phase of the Talk It Out campaign.

The kids get it; they just need somebody to take the time to sit down with them and talk about it.

Zander Guy, ABC Commission chairman

Launched in 2014, Talk It Out is a multimedia approach targeted at changing how kids and parents regard underage drinking by framing it as not a common rite of passage for teens, but as a significant public health concern.

Prior phases have focused on raising awareness of the scope and costs of underage drinking, and educating the public on how early exposure to alcohol can impact the adolescent brain.

Gentle humor

“The latest phase of our Talk It Out campaign is aimed directly at parents to help them understand that having these conversations is really not a big deal,” Guy said. “The kids get it; they just need somebody to take the time to sit down with them and talk about it.”

The ads use gentle humor to compare the process of gearing up to talk to kids with a high-stakes corporate presentation or a theatrical performance. Each ends with the tag line: “Talking to your kids about alcohol doesn’t have to be a big production.”

Online materials offer facts, tips for planning brief, meaningful conversations, and listening strategies to make sure parents are engaged in a two-way dialogue.

Kat Haney, director of the initiative to reduce underage drinking at the ABC Commission, says the campaign is slowly making a difference in public attitudes.

“The overarching goal is to change the culture in North Carolina around underage drinking,” said Haney. “We do hear from our research out in the field that parents who recall the ads are more likely to have a conversation with their kids, and so we’re really heartened by that. We’re moving in the right direction but we have more work to do.”

Elizabeth Friend: efriend.email@gmail.com

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