Family Talk: Don’t wait ’til too late to communicate about drinking
A few years ago, a New York Times columnist tried to address the issue of how parents should deal with their children's use of alcohol. The columnist professed his own frustration with knowing what to do: Should you allow your teen to drink alcohol in moderation under your supervision, or should you take a zero tolerance stance? When he invited readers to share their own stories, he received this one from a woman named Jackie in Baltimore:
"I grew up in an upper middle-class, high-functioning alcoholic household and have been trying to cope with the resulting damage my whole life. My father anesthetized himself with 3 or 4 martinis every night and my mother was his personal bartender, serving the cocktails in his den/hideaway. The message I got was that my father's drinking was normal and that alcohol was the way to deal with stress. His drinking was never discussed. I'm a single parent and don't drink, but I'm terrified about what the future holds for my 11-year-old daughter, and I'm not sure how to broach the subject with her. Given the family history, it's something that I need to address soon, before she reaches the age when she will inevitably be faced with alcohol use among her peer group." According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 teens drink alcohol before turning 13, and about the same number of high school kids has binged on alcohol. Overall, a third of teenagers drink alcohol on a regular basis. Instead of trying to deal with the issue of drinking when a crisis hits, parents would do well to begin the drinking dialogue much earlier. Here are a few suggestions: 1. Be a good role model. If you use alcohol, drink in moderation. If you abstain, explain why. Surprisingly, research indicates the overwhelming majority of teens say their parents have the most influence over their drinking decisions. 2. Begin early talking with kids about drinking. Ages 7-11 is ideal. It only gets harder to talk about drinking to young people as they get older. 3. Clearly communicate expectations. Don't say, “I don't want to ever catch you drinking.” Instead, talk factually about the problems caused by underage drinking and communicate both rules and consequences for violations. 4. Rehearse and role play. This is an important one. When your kids are young, go over potential peer pressure situations and help them role play ways of handling friends who urge them to drink. Practicing ahead of time really helps. 5. Know your children's friends. Next to parents, friends have the most influence on a child's decision about alcohol. Don't wait until your son or daughter issues a graduation party ultimatum to talk about alcohol. Start early and be a positive influence on your children's decisions about drinking.
Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org