Parents, you have a strong influence on your child—talk to your youngster early and often.
By Natasha Persaud
Despite the laws against underage drinking, it can be easy for kids to get alcohol. Case in point: In an episode of the TV show What Would You Do?, a couple of underage teens with cash stood on a sidewalk and asked adult passersby to purchase beer for them at a nearby liquor store. Believe it or not, some adults did just that!
It’s even easier for kids and teens to obtain alcohol from their parents’ liquor cabinet, another relative, a peer or—most often—from a non-relative over age 21, according to research. This should be a wake up call for all parents.
Myth: “Alcohol is a Rite of Passage. Everyone Drinks.”
You might think, "My child gets good grades and would never develop problem drinking," but it's wise to consider the statistics: According to "Monitoring the Future 2011," a major survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 7 out of every 10 students have consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) by the end of high school, and one third has done so by 8th grade. And half of 12th graders and more than one sixth of 8th graders report having been drunk at least once in their life. Some engaged in life-threatening binge drinking, which means they had five or more drinks in a row. To put it into perspective, moderate drinking levels for adults is no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.
Myth: "Alcohol is No Big Deal." The Academic, Social and Health Consequences of Drinking
Underage drinking can interfere with school attendance, disrupt concentration and hurt academic performance. Researchers are continuing to study how alcohol influences teen brain growth, development and functionality. The “Impact of Adolescent Drinking on the Developing Brain” project, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is looking at the short- and long-term effects of drinking on the developing brain and how alcohol’s negative effects may resolve or persist into adulthood.
According to the NIAAA, using alcohol and drugs before the brain has fully developed increases the risk for future addiction to alcohol and drugs dramatically. Young people who start drinking alcohol before age 15 are 5 times more likely to develop alcohol abuse or dependence than people who first used alcohol at age 21 or older.
Adolescents who drink alcohol are also at higher risk of violent behavior and unplanned and unprotected sex. Even when alcohol simply interferes with healthy relationships, it’s robbing a child of his or her future.
Myth: "Kids Only Drink at Parties"
Encountering alcoholic drinks at parties and social outings with friends is common. But you might be surprised to learn that a significant number of teens drink alone, not to have fun, but out of stress or boredom. According to a 2006 survey, teens and 20-year-olds drink most often at someone’s home, their own home, a restaurant, a bar or a club, the park, the beach, a parking lot, or in a car.
What if you let your child drink at home? Will it protect him or her from getting into trouble? No; Research shows that teens who drink at home are more likely to drink outside the home and to develop substance abuse problems later on.
Younger teens are drinking too. Studies show that most young people who start drinking before age 21 do so when they are about 13 to 14 years old.
This doctor’s screening question for underage drinking highlights the peer pressure: "Do you have any friends who drank beer, wine, or any drink containing alcohol in the past year?" Having friends who drink influences a child’s present and future alcohol consumption.
Yet, your child needs to know that not everyone in his age group drinks. In fact, fewer teens drank and used drugs in 2011 than in any year since 1975, according to Monitoring the Future.
As a parent, you want to empower your child to make her own decisions without yielding to peer pressure. Let your child know that you want her to be in control so she can make good decisions in any situation. Also talk about how drinking alcohol can take away anyone’s ability to be in control—even an adult’s.
Myth: "Alcohol always comes in a bottle or can"
Beer is often the alcohol of choice when kids start to drink. But those who dislike the taste of alcohol may turn to fruity wine coolers or "Jello shots" (made by adding cold vodka or other spirits to boiling water and gelatin mix) instead. Some young people don’t realize that they can get just as drunk on wine coolers and beer as they can on liquor.
Parents, Be Their Super Hero
It’s important to start talking to your children early—even as young as ages 5 to 9—and to keep talking about underage drinking and staying in good physical, mental and emotional health. You have far more influence than you think.
Young people who believe their parents disapprove of substance use and stay in touch with day-to-day activities are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, according to research. And at least one study has found that kids who have regular conversations with their parents and learn about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are 50 percent less likely to use these substances. Listening to your child’s feelings and problems is as important as talking.
Talking About Your Own Alcohol Consumption
Your own drinking habits influence how well your child adheres to rules you establish. It’s okay to drink in front of your child, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, but be aware that your child observes how and when you drink, including if you engage in these less-than-healthy habits: drinking to reduce tension and drinking and driving (or swimming).
Explain that you and other adults may choose to drink alcohol to celebrate, but that drinking decisions need to be made when a person is older. Even adults need to be concerned with how often and how much they drink.
Talking Points for Parents
Use these tips from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and other organizations to help your child understand the dangers of drinking:
Ages 5 to 9
- If you and your child see someone who is drunk on TV or on the street, explain that getting drunk is never good and could be dangerous.
- Convey the positive reasons for your child to wait to drink, such as learning to make decisions with a clear head and to feel good afterwards.
Ages 10 to 12
- Beer, wine and liquor commercials are often glamorized. Remind your child that alcohol is a drug and dispel the myth that a person needs to drink to have a good time.
- Openly discuss the dangers of drinking.
- Get to know your child’s friends. If you tween is invited to a party, call the parents and make sure adults will be present, before you allow her to attend.
- Teach kids that it’s okay to say "no." TheCoolSpot.gov, an interactive web site, helps teens learn to say no assertively in tricky situations.
Ages 13 to 18
- Make it clear that drinking is not permitted under any circumstances and let your teen know that you trust her not to drink alcohol.
- Help your child build self-reliance by asking him how he plans to deal with situations such as being offered alcohol or being invited to ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
- Stay up and wait for your teen to return from a party so you can chat about what happened. Strive to convey love and concern, rather than mistrust.
- The first time you have evidence that your teen has been drinking, confront her. Don’t minimize it.
- Many teens misinterpret, "Don’t drink and drive" to mean it’s okay to drink so long as they don’t get behind the wheel. Clearly tell teen drivers not to drink at all.
Ages 18 and older
- College-age students may encounter drinking on- and off campus. Find out about a college’s record of drinking-related incidents and its alcohol policy before your child enrolls.
- Remind your child about the dangers of binge drinking and alcohol poisoning.
- As always, stay connected with your child to learn how best to help him or her.
Signs a Child Has an Alcohol Problem
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, watch for these signs:
- smell of alcohol on breath or sudden, frequent use of breath mints
- abrupt changes in mood or attitude
- sudden decline in attendance or performance at school
- losing interest in school, sports or other activities that used to be important
- sudden resistance to discipline at school
- uncharacteristic withdrawal from family, friends or interests
- heightened secrecy about actions or possessions
- associating with a new group of friends whom the child refuses to discuss
You may want to make a pledge similar to this one by Safe Homes, a program to prevent underage drinking. You agree to:
- Provide adult supervision for all children visiting your home
- Provide a secure storage place for all forms of alcohol in your home
- Not allow parties or gatherings in your home when you are not there
- Not allow children to drink alcohol in your home
- Talk with any parent of a child you personally observe using alcohol or drugs
Remember, underage drinking can have serious and life-long consequences. With your guidance, your child can safely navigate adolescence free of alcohol problems.
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Stopalcoholabuse.gov, an interagency website of the U.S. government
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
TheCoolSpot.gov, a website for tweens 11 to 13 years old by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
What Would You Do? (ABC)