April is Alcohol Awareness Month, led by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD). This month, the organization is highlighting the problem of underage drinking. So throughout the month of April Addiction.com will be sharing the latest statistics, information and guidance on how parents can help keep children and teens from drinking and also foster a healthy relationship with alcohol when they are old enough to legally drink.
Writer Madeleine Beckman starts the series with a look at school-age children — those from about age 4 through 10. In the coming weeks we’ll talk specifically to the needs, questions and concerns of raising pre-teens and teenagers, too, to help parents and older kids and adolescents understand the risks of drinking too soon.
As a parent, you already know that explaining a complex topic like alcohol (not to mention problem drinking) to a preschooler will be very different from discussing it with a middle-schooler. But the most important thing to know in talking to a young child about drinking — and this advice goes for grandparents, aunts, uncles and guardians, too — is that you should talk about it if the subject comes up. “Parents need to be involved,” stresses addiction specialist Joni Ogle, LSCW, an addiction specialist and a blogger at Addiction.com. So if your child comes to you with a question about what alcoholism is, or they’ve seen an adult (including yourself) acting in a way they don’t understand, or even if they have a more basic question about what beer, wine or liquor are and how they affect people, start simple, says Ogle: “Begin by asking your children what they know about alcohol.”
From there, you’ll probably want to steer clear of telling kids to “just say no.” (You already know that as soon as you tell a child they can’t do something, that’s the only thing they’ll want to do.) “Lecturing kids is not helpful; you need to hear what your children are thinking, what they’re feeling anxious about, what they have to say,” advises Ogle, who has more than 25 years of addiction clinical counseling experience with children, adolescents and adults. “Talk with your children, not at them.”
The younger the child, the more black-and-white and concrete he or she will see things. If you say, “Alcohol is bad,” your child might say, “Why?” Be prepared to explain that it will hurt their body and make them feel very sick. (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, offers resources for parents of school-age children, too.) For older kids, you can begin the conversation around a video clip of, say, Justin Bieber or another celebrity they know behaving badly. But don’t use scare tactics with your child, cautions Ogle. “This will most likely have the opposite effect you’re going for and cause your child to shut down.”
John Purcell, a retired substance abuse counselor and program coordinator who worked at Beth Israel Hospital, in New York City, says that the earlier parents talk with their children, the better. “It’s not just one talk,” emphasizes Purcell. “It’s an ongoing conversation, ongoing talks.”
And if you think all your advice will just go in one ear and out the other, that’s not the case. According to Evelyn Stephens, MD, a New York City-based psychiatrist in private practice who specializes in addiction and young people, “Parents can have a major impact on whether their child drinks.” Dr. Stephens, who grew up in Argentina where drinking wine with meals is part of the culture, says her parents drank “responsibly and moderately” and this model influenced her own attitude toward drinking. “Parents need to understand that their behavior and disapproval of underage alcohol use, is a key reason kids choose not to drink, she says.
As a parent, you can influence your child’s values and decisions about drinking before he or she begins to use alcohol.“When my 5-year-old asks, ‘What are you drinking, Daddy?’ if I’m having a drink, I tell him ‘It’s a drink for adults’ and that it’s not a drink for children,” says Robert Scholz, a clinical counselor and family therapist at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, California. Scholz encourages adults to speak honestly with children about alcohol, but to take into account where the child is developmentally and what they can understand. For instance, Scholz suggests comparing drinking to driving — that it’s something that only adults can do; this can be useful for younger children, whose thinking is more concrete.
How to Start the Talk
If you’re wondering when or how to bring up a conversation about alcohol, you’re not alone. Some situations present themselves as an ideal time — for instance, a Christmas celebration or Thanksgiving dinner at which Uncle Will or Aunt Sue has had too much to drink. “If your child asks you why someone is behaving oddly, and it’s due to alcohol, don’t put off the discussion,” advises Scholz. The following are seven points to keep in mind when speaking with your school-age child about alcohol use and abuse:
- Trust your instincts. If your child is bringing up the subject of drinking and alcohol more than once, he or she is concerned, or at least curious, and it’s time to discuss it openly and answer any questions your son or daughter might have.
- Connect with your child. Ask what he or she has heard about drinking so you can hear the specific ideas your son or daughter has about alcohol; this will give you a chance, too, to correct any misinformation and address fears or confusion your child might have.
- Choose topics you feel comfortable discussing, such as “Does your teacher talk about alcohol and drinking at school?” or simply ask, “What do you know about drinking and alcohol?” Or use a specific instance as a jumping-off point for discussion, like, “What upset you about what Uncle Will was doing at Grandma and Grandpa’s?”
- Use your own style of discussing alcohol and drinking, whether that’s a casual conversation around the dinner table or watching a video from SAMHSA or using another resource to spur discussion.
- Remember that your child looks to you for guidance and support in making life decisions — from soccer practice to alcohol use. Don’t underestimate the power your advice has on your children, as well as the example you set in your own drinking habits, even for very young children.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. If you say “no drinking before you’re 21” don’t then allow your child to have a small amount of wine or beer for a taste at a special occasion or because they ask. Simply put, don’t waiver on the rules you set around alcohol in your household.
- Don’t assume kids are too young. Some, but not most, school-age kids will experiment with alcohol, and if you have older children or teens in the house they may be influencing their younger siblings.
Have you talked to your child about alcohol? If so, how did the conversation go?