When I think about my kids starting to drink alcohol it fills me with dread. If I let my mind dwell on it, the range of potential scenarios that my mind can conjure up results in feelings of anxiety. It doesn’t help that I sometimes have to help young people pick up the pieces after an alcohol-related incident. I’d like to think my kids will make healthy choices about alcohol but given that my own choices at that age were somewhat questionable it’s hard to feel reassured.
A 2017 review study looked at what kids 12 years and less know about alcohol and what matters when it comes to educating kids about alcohol. 17 studies were included in the review. The review found that from preschool children were aware of and were able to identify alcohol. Over half of children of this age regularly include alcohol in shopping role-plays. They are also able to give information about appropriate contexts for drinking alcohol.
Young children were also aware of alcohol's effects, positive and negative. The review also found that as children increased in age they perceived drinking as more positive than when they were younger. This happened around ages nine to 12 years of age well before drinking in teens generally begins.
The researchers conclude that knowledge and attitudes towards alcohol appeared to form through observation and the media. They suggested that given that alcohol education should begin well before children begin drinking and focus on three things: delaying alcohol initiation, addressing the social expectations and acceptance surrounding alcohol (social norms) and reducing positive expectations of alcohol.
What does this mean for parents?
As parents, we play a key role when it comes to alcohol. Education can come through conversations about alcohol and its effects and our own choices with alcohol. Here are a few ways to do so:
1 | Delay alcohol initiation
Have conversations with kids about what can happen when kids drink before the legal age limit including behavioral and physical consequences such as how it can affect your brain development. Talk honestly with your kids that people often consider drinking fun and there will be opportunities and pressure to drink well before the legal age limit. Talk about how that might be handled and what you have heard other kids do. It can also be helpful to talk about your own experiences, even if you drank before the legal age limit and include an honest reflection of the positives and negatives of that experience for you and your friends.
2 | Address the social expectations of your culture about alcohol
I’m Australian and alcohol use is big in my culture. Many adults can’t imagine socializing without alcohol and alcohol is present at nearly every social event. This is the world my kids live in. Your culture may not have the same pressure as mine but keep in mind that your child lives within a culture that your kid is receiving messages from. Be open with your kids about the pressures, encourage them to question the culture if it promotes alcohol use as necessary to have a good time or required for celebration. Talk about other ways you can celebrate or how other non-alcohol focused cultures have fun and celebrate. Considering reducing your own alcohol use. This is especially if you are aware that you need alcohol to socialize. It will be hard for your kid to take you seriously if you don’t walk your talk.
3 | Reduce positive expectations of alcohol
Kids start to see alcohol more positively as they move towards their teens. They are not immune to the messages that equate alcohol as fun. Ensure that they also receive information on the downsides of alcohol such as the physical and mental effects, the addictive elements and social implications. One of the saddest things I see is young people who hurt someone or have their reputation sullied due to alcohol-related behavior. Watch your own talk about alcohol. Do you emphasize the fun and minimize the downsides and harm?
4 | Help kids build a repertoire of natural highs
There are many ways to feel good without using alcohol or other drugs. Endorphins from exercise, feelings of success from achievement, taking a risk, the joy of being together, comedy and silliness just to name a few can provide a natural high. Do activities with your kids and feel the fun with them. Talk about how it felt afterward and emphasize how that feel-good feeling was achieved.
5 | Help kids accept all feelings
Alcohol is often used to reduce feelings of social discomfort. By helping children tolerate unwanted or difficult feelings such as social anxiety we can lessen the risk that they will turn to alcohol and other substances to change the way they feel or get rid of feelings. Allowing children to sit with their feelings and label them without trying to change their feelings. Providing empathy and validation for feelings is helpful too.
Alcohol is part of the western world and is something children are exposed to. As parents, we can help our kids have a balanced view about alcohol from where they can make their own decisions when the time inevitably comes.