Research has shown that nearly 80% of high school children have tried alcohol.
As much as moms and dads may not like to think about it, the truth is that many children and adolescents try alcohol during their high school and college years, long before it's legal for them to drink it. Research has shown that nearly 80% of high school children have tried alcohol.
Although experimentation with alcohol may be common among children, it's not safe or legal. So it's important to start discussing alcohol use and abuse with your children at an early age and keep talking about it as they grow up.
Alcohol interferes with a child's perception of reality and ability to make good decisions. This can be particularly hazardous for children and adolescents who have less problem-solving and decision-making experience.
Short-term effects of drinking include:
- altered perceptions and emotions
- bad breath
- distorted vision, hearing, and coordination
- impaired judgment, which can lead to accidents, drowning, and other risky behaviors like unsafe sex and drug use
Long-term effects include:
- an increased risk of impotence
- cirrhosis and cancer of the liver
- heart and central nervous system damage
- high risk for overdosing
- loss of appetite
- memory loss
- serious vitamin deficiencies
- stomach ailments
Long before your children are presented with a chance to drink alcohol, you can increase the chances that they'll just say "no." Childhood is a time of learning and discovery, so it's important to encourage children to ask questions, even ones that might be hard to answer. Open, honest, age-appropriate communication now sets the stage for your children to come to you later with other difficult topics or problems.
The later elementary school years are a crucial time in which you can influence your youngster's decisions about alcohol use. Children at this age tend to love to learn facts, especially strange ones, and are eager to learn how things work and what sources of information are available to them. So it's a good time to openly discuss facts about alcohol: its long- and short-term effects and consequences, its physical effects, and why it's especially dangerous for growing bodies.
Children also can be heavily influenced by friends now. Their interests may be determined by what their peers think. So teach your youngster to say "no" to peer-pressure, and discuss the importance of thinking and acting as an individual.
Casual discussions about alcohol and peers can take place at the dinner table as part of your normal conversation: "I've been reading about young children using alcohol. Do you ever hear about children using alcohol or other drugs in your school?"
By the adolescent years, your children should know the facts about alcohol and your attitudes and beliefs about substance abuse. So use this time to reinforce what you've already taught them and focus on keeping the lines of communication open.
Adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, and their increasing need for independence may make them want to defy their moms and dads' wishes or instructions. But if you make your adolescent feel accepted and respected as an individual, you increase the chances that your youngster will try to be open with you.
Children want to be liked and accepted by their friends, and they need a certain degree of privacy and trust. Avoid excessive preaching and threats, and instead, emphasize your love and concern. Even when they're annoyed by parental interest and questions, adolescents still recognize that it comes with the territory.
Teach children a variety of approaches to deal with offers of alcohol:
- Encourage them to ask questions. If a drink of any kind is offered, they should ask, "What is it?" and "Where did you get it?"
- Remind them to leave any uncomfortable situation. Make sure they have money for transportation or a phone number where you or another responsible adult can be reached.
- Teach children never to accept a ride from someone who has been drinking. Some moms and dads find that offering to pick up their children from an uncomfortable situation — no questions asked — helps encourage children to be honest and call when they need help.
- Teach them to say "no, thanks" when the drink offered is an alcoholic one.
Times of transition, such as the onset of puberty or a moms and dads' divorce, can lead children to alcohol use. So teach your children that even when life is upsetting or stressful, drinking alcohol as an escape can make a bad situation much worse.
Children who have problems with self-control or low self-esteem are more likely to abuse alcohol. They may not believe that they can handle their problems and frustrations without using something to make them feel better.
Children without a sense of connectedness with their families or who feel different in some way (appearance, economic circumstances, etc.) may also be at risk. Those who find it hard to believe in themselves desperately need the love and support of moms and dads or other family members.
In fact, not wanting to harm the relationships between themselves and the adults who care about them is the most common reason that young people give for not using alcohol and other drugs.
Fortunately, moms and dads can do much to protect their children from using and abusing alcohol:
- Be a good role model. Consider how your use of alcohol or medications may influence your children. Consider offering only nonalcoholic beverages at parties and other social events to show your children that you don't need to drink to have fun.
- Educate yourself about alcohol so you can be a better teacher. Read and collect information that you can share with children and other moms and dads.
- Teach children to manage stress in healthy ways, such as by seeking help from a trusted adult or engaging in a favorite activity.
- Try to be conscious of how you can help build your youngster's self-esteem. For example, children are more likely to feel good about themselves if you emphasize their strengths and positively reinforce healthy behaviors.
Despite your efforts, your youngster may still use — and abuse — alcohol. How can you tell?
Here are some common warning signs:
- alcohol disappearing from your home
- association with a new group of friends and reluctance to introduce them to you
- change in attendance or performance at school
- depression and developmental difficulties
- discipline problems at school
- loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities
- sudden change in mood or attitude
- the odor of alcohol
- withdrawal from family and friends
It's important not to jump to conclusions based on only one or two signs. Adolescence is a time of change — physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. This can lead to erratic behavior and mood swings as children try to cope with all of these changes.
If your youngster is using alcohol, there will usually be a cluster of these signs, like changes in friends, behavior, dress, attitude, mood, and grades. If you see a number of changes, look for all explanations by talking to your children, but don't overlook substance abuse as a possibility.
Other tips to try:
- Always make sure you have a phone number where you can reach your youngster.
- Have children check in regularly when they're away from home.
- Keep tabs on where your children go.
- Know the moms and dads of your youngster's friends.
- When spending an extended length of time away from you, your youngster should check in periodically with a phone call, e-mail, or visit home.
For adolescents, especially those old enough to drive, consider negotiating and signing a behavioral contract. This contract should spell out the way you expect your youngster to behave and state the consequences if your adolescent drives under the influence. Follow through and take the keys away, if necessary.
Make part of the deal with your adolescent that you and the rest of your family also agree never to drink and drive. Also encourage responsible behaviors, such as planning for a designated driver or calling an adult for help rather than driving under the influence.
It's important to keep communication open and expectations reasonable. Tying responsible actions to freedoms such as a later curfew or a driver's license can be a powerful motivator. Teach your children that freedom only comes with responsibility — a lesson that should last a lifetime.
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