You can hardly get through the holidays without seeing a news story about the stress that many people experience at this time of year. There's the loss of loved ones who won't be gathering around the table. Family members who are forced together even if they're not on good terms. And there's the letdown of unfulfilled expectations.
An element of stress that's often neglected is that which alcohol brings — people already challenged by alcohol tend to overindulge at this time of year. People giving parties where alcohol flows freely are at risk of lawsuit if a departing guest is injured in an auto accident. And there's the alcohol-induced stress of embarrassing yourself in front of co-workers or family.
For many people, alcohol is a subject of New Year's resolutions: "On Jan. 1, I'll resolve to do something about my drinking." This year, consider taking charge by resolving now either to become alcohol-free or to use and serve alcohol more responsibly.
Even if you're a parent saying, "I already use alcohol responsibly," this message may still be for you. That's because you have a golden opportunity to set a good example for the children and teens in your life. If they don't abuse alcohol, that will reduce your stress year-round. It's no small task.
In Oregon, many teens make poor decisions about alcohol. Record numbers of eighth- and 11th-graders report using alcohol and, even worse, 47 percent of 11th-graders report dangerous binge drinking in the past month.
I'll admit it: When I was in high school, a lot of kids drank. But even though that was a poor (and illegal) choice, the amount being consumed was relatively moderate. Today, by contrast, kids have contests to see who can drink the most. Although death is always tragic, we're now less shocked by news stories reporting that a teen has fallen victim to alcohol poisoning. What can parents do?
If you give an adult party where alcohol is served, make sure it's done responsibly. But also consider an alcohol-free party with games, a white-elephant gift exchange, fun beverages and good food — you'll be delighted with the results. If you keep liquor in the house, be sure it isn't available to your kids. In a new survey, 12 percent of Oregon eighth-graders reported they got alcohol at home without their parents' permission.
If the kids want their own holiday party, do it with an organized youth group or in a home where there will be intelligent parental supervision. Send a frequent, firm and loving message to your kids with your expectations about alcohol and other drugs. The data are conclusive: Children whose parents do this are far less likely to use alcohol and other drugs.
Alcohol is a pervasive part of our society. A conservative estimate is that alcohol advertising amounts to $55 million or more annually in Oregon alone. Yet like other things that we know aren't good for us or our kids, we don't have to buy into it. We can instead concentrate on what the holidays are intended to celebrate: Our families, our friends, keeping promises to our kids and lots of happy, stress-free memories that didn't require alcohol to bring out the fun.
Karen Wheeler is addiction policy manager in the Oregon Department of Human Services. She can be reached at Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org.