This guest post is by Howard Weissman. Weissman is a social worker and the Executive Director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (NCADA), St. Louis area.

"Youth Football," by Ronald Carlson/
Source: "Youth Football," by Ronald Carlson/

Changing the Rules

Due to the tragic suicides of several prominent former NFL players, the revelation of a league cover-up, and the Will Smith movie, Concussion, many Americans are aware of a connection between football and permanent brain injury. Recent polls suggest that a significant percentage of parents would now discourage their children from taking up the sport.

A growing body of research demonstrates that the cause of the brain damage isn’t only from the powerful, high-speed collisions, but also from recurrent subtle head injuries—blows that often aren’t even recognized as concussions. This is why so many parents, upon learning that football can damage more than knees or shoulders, are now forbidding their children from participating in the country’s most popular sport.

When the risks are exposed, responsible parents change the rules. So in thousands of homes across the country, young boys with football dreams are fiercely complaining to intractable parents. When we as caregivers put the welfare of our children first, we withstand the complaints. We make our decisions and our kids don’t have to like them…at least that’s what we tell ourselves in matters of health and safety.

So I find it curious, that many of the same parents, who are rethinking their child’s participation in contact sports, are allowing their children to regularly engage in an activity that results in an equally serious brain injury:

Binge drinking.

Parents should know that just one night of drinking often leads to more than just a hangover. Research clearly finds that brain damage (indicated by a particular protein) is present within just 24 hours of heavy drinking. According to University of North Carolina professor Fulton T. Crews, “…a growing list of studies…suggest that even short-term binge drinking can have long-term effects.”

“A Hangover is Primarily a Brain Injury”

Though it feels bad all over the body, a hangover is primarily a brain injury. It’s not a coincidence that a mild concussion has exactly the same symptoms: nausea, headache, memory loss, difficulty concentrating or tolerating noise, depression or anxiety.

Repeated hangovers do the same things to a young person’s brain as repeated concussions. A hangover is, essentially, an insult caused by a poison rather than blunt force, but the consequences are identical. And let’s face it: when teens drink, they often drink badly. They consume too much in too short a period of time. In other words, they binge drink and often make themselves sick.

Binge drinking is loosely defined as four or more drinks at one time for women, five or more for men. And these are the numbers for adult women and men; teenagers’ brains are still developing and much more vulnerable to damage.

Parent Power

If your son came home after a football game and reported that he “got his bell rung” and couldn’t remember parts of the game, you’d probably be headed to the nearest hospital for an immediate neurological evaluation.  And you’d be sure he stopped playing, at least for a while. But when the same child comes home with alcohol on his breath, vomit on his shirt, and the same kind of amnesia, the response is often quite a bit more casual. “It’s just boys being boys; kids being kids.”

So as a parent ask yourself, if you’re willing to keep your child safe from the potential harms of playing a contact sport, would you also be willing to reinvigorate your commitment to keep your children away from the other activity that is equally likely to damage them?

"Drinking game," by Rethcir,
Source: "Drinking game," by Rethcir,

Yes, the football game on Saturday is fraught with risk…but so too is the party on Friday night that precedes it.

And perhaps it’s time to reconsider the high school spring break trip to sunny Mexico. For many young people, spring break trips to the Caribbean become week-long benders that result in little more than a collection of hazy memories tinged with embarrassment and shame, accompanied by a durable dose of brain damage. Permitting this activity is the neurological equivalent of allowing your son or daughter to take up bare-knuckle boxing.

Underage drinking is illegal and harmful, contributing to about 4,700 deaths per year. And most underage drinking is binge drinking.

Eighty percent of teens say parents are the biggest influence on whether they drink or not. So, how could you talk to your children about these chemical concussions?  A good start is to check out these resources and suggestions from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. I would add:

  • Set clear expectations. If you expect no drinking until age 21, say so.
  • Consider halting your own alcohol consumption during the teen years. Almost all teens think it’s hypocritical for you to demand sobriety while continuing to drink, even if you imbibe moderately and responsibly. Is that fair or rational? No, but they’re teenagers.

Knowing your own values and setting clear rules for your children will go a long way toward preventing invisible blows to a developing brain. 

(c) Howard Weissman

To contact Howard Weissman about this article, email him at


Talking with Kids: See this NPR story.

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