Now is exactly when you should talk to your kid about alcohol. In fact, the earlier the better. And here's why. Kids are having their first drink three-and-a-half years earlier than kids from the baby-boomer generation. Seven percent of fourth graders and more than 8 percent of fifth graders have drunk beer, liquor, or wine coolers in the past year; and 27 percent of sixth graders have used alcohol at least once this past year. One-out-of-six eighth graders are current drinkers. Some reports say that girls are binge drinking as frequently (or even more) as boys.52 Kids form beliefs about alcohol very early in life, even before they start elementary school.Parents also have far more influence on their children's attitudes when the kids are young. Children nine or under generally perceive drinking as negative, but around thirteen their views change and become more positive.
These statistics give you all the reason you need to start those "drinking talks" by the fourth grade at the very latest. There is one additional irrefutable research-based finding you can't ignore:the earlier kids start to drink, the more likely they are to have alcohol problems later in life. Children who start to drink before the age of fifteen are four times more likely to report the criteria for alcohol dependence. Research shows that thirteen thousand kids will take their first drink today. Underage drinking is clearly a problem.
Here are solutions to prepare you for that critical must-have ongoing parenting talk with your child about drinking:
Take a reality check.
Please don't hold on to a "not my kid" attitude. Underage drinking is a growing problem that we simply can't ignore. Here are signs that your child may be drinking:
- Slurred or slowed speech, lack of coordination, difficulty carrying on a conversation
- Efforts to mask his breath (such as using mouthwash, gum, or mints)
- Hanging around a group of much older kids, sneaking out or not telling you where he was or going
- Mysteriously dwindling home liquor supply; hidden liquor bottles
- Unaccounted charges on your credit card from Web sites, pharmacies, or grocery or liquor stores
- Bloodshot eyes, sleeping in, or trouble waking
- Use of names of drinking games, such as Century Club, Power Hour, Quarters, Flippy Cup
Be a good model.
Kids get their views about alcohol from watching your behavior and listening to your comments. So watch your own party scene. Forget trying to tell your teen to be a responsible driver later on if you're not one now. Don't glamorize alcohol or say you're using it as a way to unwind; for example, never say "I sure could use a drink!" Instead, show kids other ways you relax. If you're not an example of responsible behavior, don't expect your kid to act responsibly. Your actions speak louder than your words.
Set clear rules against drinking.
Feel free to be puritanical and strict. Consistently enforcing those rules and monitoring your kid's behavior will help reduce the likelihood of underage drinking. A study of over a thousand teens found that kids with "hands-on" parents who establish clear behavior expectations, monitor their comings and goings, and aren't afraid to say no are four times less likely to engage in risky behaviors like drinking. Be a parent, not a pal. (By the way, don't believe the myth that you should let your underage kid learn to drink in the comforts of home because "youngsters in countries with a lower legal age drink more moderately." There is no scientific proof of this claim.)
Start early and talk often.
This point cannot be overstated: you must talk to your child about drinking, and the earlier the better. Before age nine, kids usually perceive alcohol negatively and see drinking as "bad" with negative consequences. By around the age of thirteen, kids' views of alcohol shift toward the positive and become harder to change. Some kids are experimenting with drinking as young as ten or eleven. It's never too early to start this talk, so don't put it off.
Look for teachable moments.
Lectures and stern warnings are kid turnoffs, but you still need to share information about alcohol and its potential dangers. So look for ways to weave the topic naturally into everyday moments. Here are a few ways:
Talk about popular song lyrics. You may not have to look too far -- pull those earphones out of your kid's ear and listen to the lyrics. One out of every three popular songs has a reference to substance abuse -- and alcohol is the substance most frequently mentioned.
Show them news clippings. If you read about an accident caused by a teen drunk driver, cut it out and use it to discuss how drinking not only affects judgment and the ability to perform everyday tasks but also destroys lives -- including your kid's, if he were that driver.
Emphasize the short-term downside. Kids live in the here and now, so it's often a hard sell to try to convince them of the long-term risks: "You'll get cirrhosis of the liver thirty years from now!" You may have better luck stressing the short term: "Your brain is still developing and is more susceptible to damage than adult brains," or "Alcohol affects your central nervous system faster because of your smaller body size, so you are more likely to make serious judgment errors and sustain injuries that could even be life threatening." If that doesn't work, try "You'll be grounded and miss most of your seventh-grade year."
Avoid or utilize alcohol advertising. Long-term studies show that kids who see, hear, and read more alcohol ads are more likely to drink and to drink more heavily than their peers. A study with third, sixth, and ninth graders found those kids who thought alcohol ads were desirable are also more likely to view drinking more positively. Use those frequently aired beer and vodka commercials during those ball games you're watching together as opportunities to discuss your values, concerns, and rules about drinking.
Forbid drinking and driving. It makes no difference that your child does not have a driver's license, let alone a car. Now is the time to stress one emphatic rule: "Never, ever drink and drive."
Get on board with other parents.
Know your kid's friends and their parents. Call any parent hosting a party to ensure that they are really supervising those sleepovers or birthday parties. Most kids take their first drink in their own home or at the home of their friends. In fact, 60 percent of eighth graders say it is fairly or very easy to obtain alcohol -- and the easiest place is in their own home. Count those bottles in your liquor cabinets. Lock up your liquor supply (and don't tell your kids where the key is). And watch your credit card: the hottest new place kids buy alcohol is on the Internet. Just a word to the wise: 99 percent of parents say they would not be willing to serve alcohol at their kid's party, but 28 percent of teens say they have been at supervised parties where alcohol is available. In the same survey, 98 percent of parents say they are present at teen parties at their home, but 33 percent of teens say parents are rarely or never at teen parties. Although the teen party scene may be several years away for you, get to know those parents now. They will be hosting those parties your child may be attending in just a few short years.
Give strategies for avoiding trouble.
Forty percent of tweens say they feel pressure from peers to smoke, drink, or take drugs, starting around the age of nine. So teach your child how to buck peer pressure. For example, help your kid come up with reasons that he feels comfortable saying to a peer: "My mom would kill me if she found out -- and she always finds out." "I have a big test on Monday, and I need to study." "I promised my parents I wouldn't drink until I graduate." Let your kids know it's always okay to use you as an excuse ("My mom will ground me for life"). Then be sure to role-play different situations so he's ready to use that line with buddies. Emphasize that anytime he is in a situation where there is alcohol, he should call you and you'll come pick him up -- no questions asked.
Drinking is a serious health problem with devastating consequences for tweens. Research shows that today's kids are drinking at younger ages. The reason most frequently cited by kids for not drinking is their desire not to harm the relationship they have with their parents. A parent's caring, involved relationship with their child is the best way to prevent underage drinking. Stay involved -- you do make a difference!
Excerpted from The Big Book of Parenting Solutions by Michele Borba. Copyright © 2009 by Michele Borba. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including her latest, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. She is a leading educational consultant, national parenting expert, contributor to iVillage, adviser to Parents magazine, regular guest on NBC's Today show, and mom of three.