Not Sure What to Say to Your Child About Alcohol? You’ve Already Said More Than You Think.

This is one of the most talked about excerpts from my book, Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends. Because this sums up what so many people know, but couldn’t put into words, I was asked to add it to my blog. The book is for parents of pre-teen girls, but this concept can be applied to girls or boys of a much wider age range.

I get asked a lot of parenting questions by friends and people that I meet. Sometimes I have to ask people “do you want me to answer this as a friend or as a psychologist,” because the answers are often different. When our kids were smaller, people would ask me about negative behaviors that their child was exhibiting. As a friend, I would probably say “wow, you DO have the most difficult child in the whole school” or “you poor thing, I’m sure this phase will pass.” But as a psychologist, I would be more likely to say “he’s acting out because he has no structure or stability in his day.”

I have been faced most often with this dilemma when people ask me about alcohol use by parents. Like so many of you, the people that I socialize with enjoy wine or beer with dinner, or drinks when out with friends. This is not necessarily a problem; there is a way to demonstrate responsible drinking. But I will say this in all seriousness: your tween has learned how to drink long before she ever takes a sip. Here’s how:

  • She knows why she should drink – maybe it’s to combat stress, or if she has had a bad day, or because she’s out to dinner, or because she’s sitting down to watch tv.
  • She knows when she should drink – has she seen that this is what people do when they get home at the end of the day, or because it’s what friends do when they get together, or because it’s 8:00?
  • She knows how she should drink – one drink in her hand before she even sets down her purse after coming home, one glass of wine with dinner every night, more bottles than she can count during a party, or as many beers as it takes to get from being a ball of stress to a couch potato.
  • She knows how she should feel about drinking – she knows if it is something to be ashamed of and done as secretively as possible, if it is done as a habit without giving it a second thought, or if it is something entertaining and something to brag about because she’s heard so many ‘funny’ stories about people she knows being drunk.

When it’s put like this, I think fear is struck in the hearts of all who suddenly see a tape reel of their drinking history, problematic or not. We suddenly realize what our tweens have been exposed to by us or those around us. I am not here to judge how much you should or should not be drinking. But I have found that a lot of parents downplay the impact that they believe their drinking has had on their children, or insist that despite their actions, they have told their children not to drink and believe this is sufficient.

There is a significant amount of research that concludes that children who grow up in a home in which one or both parents drink alcohol are at greater risk of beginning to drink and drinking excessively. This research extends to tobacco use as well. In fact, parents who smoked at the time their children were in the third grade had children who were 64 percent more likely to smoke by the time they reached their senior year in high school.*

No lecture here, but a suggestion to take a good, hard look at the drinking habits of your family and friends. If there are unhealthy messages being sent to your tween, you probably already knew this but may have been hesitant to make any difficult changes. Please hear my psychologist take on this, not my friend take. Take this opportunity to make the changes you need to make. And feel free to switch the word alcohol to Xanax, cigarettes, or marijuana. You get the idea – don’t kid yourself.

As far as what you should be doing to model responsible drinking, make sure that you:

  • Never drink and drive
  • Have plenty of times where you opt for something other than alcohol to drink
  • Don’t make drinking look glamorous, and challenge those who do
  • Talk about ways other than drinking to deal with stress
  • If you are with a group that is drinking excessively, leave the situation and tell your tween that you are leaving because you don’t approve of what is going on

You need to ask yourself how you expect your tween to behave around alcohol. And then ask yourself how much of that she has seen modeled for her. Children have a hard time becoming something they have never seen.

*Sources:

Ten tips for prevention for parents. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, inc. Retrieved from http://www.ncadd.org.

Peterson A., Leroux, B., Bricker, J., et al. (2006). Nine-year prediction of adolescent smoking by number of smoking parents. Addict Behavior. 31(5), 788–801.

 

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