MADD National President Helen Witty

MADD National President Helen Witty

By Helen Witty

Each year, 4,300 teens die from using alcohol. That’s nearly a dozen families and communities needlessly shattered every single day.

As a parent, there is something you can do to protect your child. And it’s easier than you might think. Talk.

With schools and extracurricular activities canceled around the nation and many adults working at home, I ask that you take this extraordinary time of family togetherness to talk to your children about the risks of alcohol and drug use.

Parents are the No. 1 influence on their child’s decisions about alcohol and drug use. By communicating with your middle and high schooler early and often, you can lower drinking behaviors by 30 percent. If you intervene when there’s a problem, your child is less likely to use alcohol and other drugs. In other words, parents have the power to make a difference.

That’s why MADD designates March 1 through May 31 as PowerTalk21®. Part of our Power of Parents® program, PowerTalk21 gets parents talking to their teens about the consequences of underage drinking and drug use. Traditionally, this has been a crucial time to start having conversations or to renew them. The spring months are filled with milestone events like spring break, prom and graduation, occasions that can increase the presence of alcohol and other drugs.

We recognize that many of these events have been canceled or could be canceled in the coming weeks. We also recognize that in time, our children and grandchildren will return to school. Local businesses will reopen. And the risks of underage alcohol and drug use will remain.

If you’re unsure how to start talking to your children, or what to say once you do, that’s OK. Hard conversations can be uncomfortable, especially when your youth might rather be on their phones. Yet these face-to-face conversations are critical, and can make all the difference. That’s why we provide a host of resources, including a downloadable handbook at, to help you start talking. These materials are also available at your local MADD office. Many of our MADD offices will also be hosting virtual, 25-minute Power of Parents workshops over the next two months.

This year, we’re expanding our reach by encouraging parents to use these tools not only to talk to their kids about alcohol, but other drugs, including marijuana – and help them Weed Out Fact from Fiction.
Outside of alcohol, marijuana is the leading cause of addiction and the drug of choice for youth. About 1 in 5 young people reported using marijuana just in the last month. By age 20, about half of young people have used it.

The fictions surrounding the drug are growing: That it’s “natural” and therefore safe. That it makes you a better driver. That it isn’t addictive. The fact is that marijuana is not safe for developing brains. The fact is it directly affects parts of the brain responsible for coordination, reaction time, attention and decision-making – all critical skills for driving. The fact is that 1 in 10 people who use marijuana will become addicted to it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet as more states legalize marijuana, more young people are using the drug along with alcohol. Our research also tells us that one in three young people who drink alcohol have also combined it with marijuana. Poly-drug use is especially dangerous.

My 16-year-old daughter, Helen Marie, was killed by a teen driver who’d spent the afternoon drinking tequila and smoking marijuana. Helen Marie was rollerblading on a bike path when the 17-year-old girl lost control of her car, ran off the road and onto the bike path. My daughter died an instant, violent death. Her teenage killer went to prison. Our lives were shattered. Forever changed. This tragedy didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened.

If you haven’t started the conversation with your children about the dangerous – and sometimes deadly – consequences of using alcohol and other drugs, please start. Today. Talking can make all the difference.