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Talking With Kids About Alcohol
BY JUDY SHEPPS BATTLE

"What's the best time to talk with my child about alcohol?"

I am asked this question every time I speak on alcohol use by middle school youth. It usually is asked after I share that the average age for first use of alcohol is 12 to 13 years and that one of every four eighth graders reports having been drunk at least once in his or her short lifetime.

Or after I say that 50 percent of sixth graders report feeling peer pressure to drink.

Parents understandably want to know how best to inoculate their children from pressures to use and abuse alcohol.

Before the Conversation
Most kids' first encounter with alcohol will be at home. Whether it is part of a religious observance, being offered a sip from Daddy's beer or being given the olive from Mom's martini, this experience is likely to happen at a young age.

Long before any conversation takes place about alcohol use, a child will have figured out his parents' relationship to alcohol. Do they abuse it or use it responsibly? Do their personalities change after a few drinks?

The credibility of later parent child talks about underage drinking will be tempered by these nonverbal experiences.

Beginning the Conversation
What's the best time to begin conversations about alcohol? The earlier the better.

There are many "teachable moments" in the life of an elementary school student. For instance, if she hears about a drunk driving accident, a simple explanation of how alcohol distorts judgment is appropriate. Or if he witnesses a drunk staggering on the sidewalk, a short acknowledgment that alcohol impairs mobility is educational.

Older elementary students can absorb more detailed explanations, and even can understand that underage consumption of alcohol is harmful to their developing brains.

Stating the Expectation
It is never too early for parents to clearly state their expectations regarding zero tolerance for underage drinking. For each year alcohol consumption is delayed, the chances decrease that your child will become a problem drinker later in life. "Children in our family do not drink" or "You must be of legal age to consume alcohol" are statements worth repeating.

Consequences for violating the "no underage drinking" rule should be clear, consistent, meaningful to the youngster and, when necessary, implemented. For teens, disobedience might result in a delay in getting a driver's learning permit. For a middle school student it might mean being grounded or not spending time with friends.

But parents must do more than make and enforce rules; they must prepare their kids for situations that put them in harm's way.

Building Refusal Skills
We know that kids with high self esteem and good boundaries are better able to refuse peer pressure to use all addictive substances.

As parents we help build our children's self esteem from the moment they are born, with loving verbal and physical communications. We help our children succeed at tasks, both at home and in school. And although it is not always easy, we practice    as one preschool teacher put it    "catching our kids being good."

Every time we enforce the natural consequences of a child's behavior we teach lessons about boundaries. Learning the difference between "me" and "them" allows a teen to say    with conviction    "Using alcohol is not me."

Role playing with your preteen helps reinforce the skills necessary to refuse alcohol. Suggest a variety of "no" statements your child can use, such as "Not now, maybe later," or "My mom would kill me if I did that," or simply a firm "No."

Finally, kids need to know you are on their side, even if    especially if    they get into troublesome situations. Let them know they can call you and you will come for them immediately, with no questions asked, regardless of the circumstances. This message builds trust and increases safety.

Alcohol Messages are Everywhere
Can conversations about alcohol backfire and put the idea of drinking alcohol in a child's head? I think that is highly unlikely.

A recent study showed that American teens see more television commercials for alcohol than for jeans, sneakers, or other teen products. Of the more than 209,000 alcohol commercials, nearly 25 percent are viewed mainly by teenagers, rather than adults.

Despite the use of voluntary guidelines by the alcohol industry, 13 of the most popular TV shows for teens ran ads for alcohol in 2001.

Parents who provide responsible education regarding alcohol use and abuse help their children resist these media messages.

Why School Isn't Enough
While it is true that kids are inundated with information about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs in health classes, a parent's role is quite different.

Nancy Stek, assistant director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) of Middlesex County, N.J., calls a positive parent child relationship the "first line of defense against alcohol abuse."

She points to a government study that asked youth to whom they would talk about a serious substance abuse problem. Youths aged 12 to 13 who chose to share this information with their mothers were less likely to use alcohol than peers who chose to trust a friend.

It's hard to keep lines of communication open between a rebellious teen and his or her parents. That is why it is important to foster this process in the earlier years.

"It is also important that parents learn the facts about alcohol," adds Ms. Stek. "For instance, some parents believe that alcohol is not a drug. The reality is that more than ten million people are addicted to it. Others believe that beer and wine are not as harmful as a shot of whiskey. Actually, 12 oz. of regular beer, a 5 oz. glass of wine, and 1 ounce of hard liquor all contain the same amount of alcohol."

Remember that adolescence does not last forever. But helping your child make wise decisions about the use of alcohol can build self esteem and relationship skills that last a lifetime.


Judy Shepps Battle is a New Jersey resident, addictions specialist, consultant and freelance writer. She can be reached by e mail at Judy@writeaction.com. Additional information on this and other topics can be found at her website at http://www.writeaction.com.

Copyright 2006 Judy Shepps Battle
This article first appeared in the Princeton Packet, Princeton, NJ


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