In the last couple of weeks I’ve been asked a number of times when I believe is the best time to start the conversation about alcohol with your child. I’m often asked this question and I’ve written about this before but thought it may be a good idea to update a blog I wrote a couple of years ago that discussed this important issue …
A US report published in 2015 aimed at preventing binge drinking in young people recommended that parents should start talking to their children about alcohol at age 9. Co-author of the report, Dr Lorena Siqueira was reported as saying that the reason to start the conversation this early was that “kids are starting to develop impressions (about alcohol) as early as 9 years.” She went on to say that for prevention to actually work, or at least have some effect, it’s better for parents to influence ideas about alcohol early, rather than trying to change their impressions later, from positive to negative.
I’ve written many times that I believe that you should start talking to your child about drugs the minute you start giving them to them. We live in a pharmaceutical world where we have become convinced that for every problem we have, there is a drug that can fix it. Think about it for a moment – if you are depressed, you take a pill, if you can’t get an erection, you take a pill – we start medicating our children from a very early age and begin to train them to be very effective drug users not long after they are born. In previous blogs I’ve discussed how parents can use pharmaceutical drugs and over-the-counter medications to start those initial conversations about drugs and how they’re used. But what about alcohol? In reality this is the drug you’re most likely going to have issues with your teen about – if you’re meant to start the conversation at age 9, what in heavens are you meant to say?
Most importantly parents should use every available opportunity to talk about the issue. Alcohol is everywhere. If kids are not seeing the adults around them drinking it, they are seeing it on TV, on billboards and on the side of buses and, of course, if they watch televised sport or attend a football game with you, it is likely to be saturated with alcohol advertising. The alcohol industry has done an incredible job of ensuring that you really can’t get away from their product and although the ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code outlines regulations around alcohol advertising (e.g., ads should not show alcohol as the cause of or contributing to the achievement of personal, business, social, sporting, sexual or other success), they are still able to make drinking look pretty damn good! Parents need to ensure that, when and where appropriate, they challenge these messages by discussing the potential dangers associated with alcohol.
It’s also important to remember that children at this age are asking lots of questions about things around them, including alcohol. It is highly likely that, if you drink, your drinking behaviour (or the behaviour of other family members or friends) will be questioned in some way. This can be incredibly confronting for parents but it provides a great opportunity for you to let your child know your views around alcohol and drinking, as well as reinforce your family values. This list of questions a child may ask, as well as some potential answers has been adapted from a Canadian resource developed by Parent Action on Drugs (PAD) called An Early Start: Drug Education Begins at Home and provides some suggestions for parents who may get asked those curly ones that they don’t quite know how to deal with appropriately:
“Can I have a sip of your beer?” “No. This is a drink for adults and it’s not good for children. There are other drinks that are more suitable for young people of your age.”
“Why do you drink it?” “I enjoy the taste, but if I drink too much it will change the way I feel, so I have to be careful.”
“What’s in this drink that makes it taste so funny?” “This drink has alcohol in it. It’s a drink for adults. Young people prefer the taste of other drinks and as they become adults their tastes may change. Some people never end up liking the taste though and so they choose never to drink alcohol.”
“Why did Uncle Jim start walking and talking funny at the party last night?” “Uncle Jim had too much alcohol to drink. Too much alcohol can make you feel and act differently. It can even make you very sick. What do you think about the way he acted?”
“Why do you have a glass of wine with dinner?” “When people eat, most usually drink something at the same time. You have your water or juice, I have a glass of wine. Some adults choose to drink wine with a meal because it goes with what we are eating – because we are older we taste things in a different way. It can make the food taste different for an adult. Alcohol can also make you sick if you have too much, but drinking it with a meal is the safest way to drink.”
It’s clear that parents’ attitudes and use influence a child’s view and subsequent use of alcohol. According to the US report mentioned above, 80% of teenagers say that their parents are the biggest influence on their decision to drink. The PAD resource asks parents the following – “Try to imagine your children watching you and others drink. Do they see you unwind with a drink? Do all of your social events and celebrations include alcohol? Do you ever ask your children to bring a drink to you?”
As I’ve said many times before, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink alcohol in front of your child – you’re an adult, you’re allowed to do whatever you want as far as alcohol is concerned. It’s just important to remember that everything you do is being watched and is having an impact. If every time you walk out the door to attend a social function or go out for dinner you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it, you are sending a very strong message to your child about the role alcohol plays in your socializing. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m certainly not saying that you should start sneaking alcohol out of the house under your jumper, you just need to talk about it! Talk about your alcohol use and how you ensure that you don’t drink in a risky way. Make sure they know that you never drink drive and that a decision is always made about who will be the designated driver for the night well before you leave the house. Most importantly, make sure you hammer the simple message that drinking alcohol is ‘adult behaviour’, it’s what adults do, not children or teens. Discuss it in the same way as driving. Driving is adult behaviour, teenagers never question that there is a ‘line in the sand’ as far as that behaviour is concerned. No matter how mature you are, you can’t drive until you reach a certain age – drinking alcohol is exactly the same, you really shouldn’t drink until you’re an adult!
As I have said many times, it’s impossible for a parent-child relationship to exist without positive communication. The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about any difficult subject, and that includes alcohol, is that it’s not a 5-minute ‘talk’ — it’s about building an ongoing dialogue. Starting nice and early builds a great foundation and as stated above, hopefully influences positive values about alcohol early, rather than trying to change more negative views they’re likely to establish later from watching the world around them.
Siqueira, L. & Smith, V.C. (2015). Binge drinking. Pediatrics 136, e718-726.
Published: May 2018