"This summer a teen in my community died in a car accident after a drinking party. Can you give tips on how to talk to my kids about alcohol? They're 7 and 11." – Dan
Smart dad! Parents are the most important influence on whether kids drink alcohol, and the earlier you start these conversations, the better. Kids whose parents teach them the risks of using drugs and alcohol are half as likely to use them. Don't wait until your kids are teens before you have these conversations. This is a topic you'll want to revisit over the years as your child reaches new levels of understanding -- and temptation
1. Start talking about alcohol early, whenever it's relevant. When there's an accident in your community talk to your child about it, even if he's only seven. "It's so tragic...alcohol is not for teenagers...their bodies and brains are not ready to handle it yet. That's why it's against the law for kids to drink alcohol."
2. Answer their questions. "But why are grown-ups allowed to drink? They get in accidents, too!" your 11 year old might say. "You're right, Sweetie. No one should drink and drive. And some grownups can't handle alcohol, so they choose not to drink it. Like Aunt Jenny -- you notice she doesn't drink wine when she comes to dinner? She's making a responsible choice that's right for her. When kids try alcohol before their brains are ready, they are much more likely to not be able to handle drinking as adults. That's one of the reasons it's so important to wait until you're 21."
3. Set clear expectations.
For a 7 year old: "When is it okay to drink alcohol? That's right, 21!"
For an 11 year old: "It’s my job to help you stay healthy. I know that lots of kids around you will try alcohol and you'll naturally be curious about it. You can always tell me and ask me anything you want, and we can brainstorm what you can say to your friends, but I don't want you drinking. It's bad for you in so many ways."
For a 15 year old: "When you are age 21, whether you drink is up to you. Right now, though, it is up to me to help you protect yourself. Drinking alcohol is against the law and it's dangerous for you. I want you to take care of yourself so you have the best life possible now and in the future.”
4. Give your kids facts before you think they need them.
Why wait until you're 21?
5. Keep communication open. Kids often test you to see if you'll over-react, before they trust you with their biggest concerns. So when you hear "Devon snuck vodka into school today in a starbucks cup," take a deep breath and stay calm so you can listen. Instead of "That's terrible! I hope he got in big trouble!" -- which shuts down the conversation -- you might get your child talking and thinking with questions like: "Wow! How could you tell he was drinking? ....What did the other kids do?...Did other kids try it?...How did they act?...What did you think?...Did you want to try it?....Why or why not?....Why do you think Devon did that?...What ended up happening?...Do you think other kids will try this now?....Would you ever do something like that?....Why or why not?...Did any of the kids handle this incident in a way you admired?"
6. Coach instead of trying to control. You can't actually control your child when she's out of your sight. But you can help her become a person who has good values and good judgment. You do that by modeling and by talking. Ask questions to help your child reflect on what’s important to her and who she wants to be. Then listen hard. You'll learn a lot from her answers.
7. Have practice conversations with your child about the various scenarios he might encounter and the decisions he might have to make. What might he do or say? For instance, if someone offers him a drink:
8. Make sure your teen has other opportunities for extreme fun. Teens need excitement and to test themselves in new situations that involve risk. Encourage your teen to meet these needs safely, whether through physical activity like skateboarding or rock climbing, or through a passion like acting.
9. Raise a child who can say No. When kids are raised to obey authority without question, they sometimes can't assert themselves when other teens act like authorities. When she says no, listen, and when possible, try to find win-win solutions. You'll raise a child who WANTS to cooperate, and follows her own moral compass. There's a brilliant saying: "Morality is doing what's right no matter what you're told. Obedience is doing what you're told no matter what's right."
10. Be your child's backup. Don't let a momentary lapse become a tragedy. “Never hesitate to call me if you're in trouble or one of your friends is in trouble. No questions asked, I will be there if you need me, no matter what.”
11. Model healthy living. If you drink heavily, your child is more likely to start drinking earlier and to drink more heavily. Model a responsible relationship with alcohol. Equally important, model handling your own emotions responsibly, which gives kids the foundation they need to manage their own emotions.
12. Foster emotional intelligence. Help your child learn to notice her own moods and work through her feelings. Help her find positive ways to deal with stress. Drinking is one way that teens "self-medicate" when they don't have healthier ways to process their feelings.
13. Above all, stay connected with your child, at every age. Every bit of influence you have with your child derives from your relationship.