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I was recently asked what I thought about parents giving their teens alcohol at home so they will learn how to use alcohol responsibly.
First of all, don’t give alcohol to children. You wouldn’t give your ten year old the keys to the sports car to get the kid used to safe driving, would you?
Alcohol is found in most homes so most children see their parents drink alcohol. They also see alcohol consumed on TV and advertised.
If you want your child to be a responsible drinker there are three rules to follow: 1) Drink responsibly yourself, if you drink at all. 2) Educate your child about what alcohol is and what it does. 3) Teach your child to be a responsible person who has self-esteem, self-respect, and the ability to think for him or herself.
How can you show your child you drink responsibly? Don’t drink when you drive or in other unsafe circumstances. Let your child see that, when adults are drinking socially, one person refrains from alcohol and serves as the designated driver. Don’t ever make light of getting drunk. It’s neither funny, nor acceptable. Don’t drink as a way of dealing with problems. Don’t serve alcohol at every social occasion or your children will erroneously think it is a prerequisite to sociability.
Also interpret unsafe, unsavory, or uncouth behaviors your children see on television that are caused by alcohol. “It’s awful to see that man drunk. He lost all control and can’t even stand up!” “That boy killed his best friend because he was drunk when he drove. Neither of them will get to graduation!”
Teach your children about alcohol. All drugs can be poisons if taken in large quantities or under the wrong conditions. Alcohol can kill people in several ways and your child should know this. If a person rapidly ingests alcohol it can be fatal; alcohol impairs judgement and lowers inhibitions so the use of alcohol while driving or using machinery can be fatal; chronic use of large quantities of alcohol can destroy your liver and your life; if a woman drinks while she is pregnant she is dooming the child to birth defects and retardation.
Alcohol can lead to risk-taking behaviors such as crime and violence. Alcohol in teens is linked to sexual activity and even promiscuity which in turn leads to unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases including AIDS. Don’t forget to mention that driving under the influence of alcohol is the leading cause of death for young adults between the ages of 15 and 24. These young people make up one fifth of the drivers in the US, but are involved in one half of all fatal car crashes. Alcohol and risk-taking behavior in this group is a deadly combination.
Be sure to point out that alcohol has a direct action on the brain and alters the way the brain works. Alcohol fools you by producing a false sense of pleasure and freedom from inhibitions. You think you feel brave or virile or invincible but you are the same old you under the influence of a mind-altering drug.
The most important thing you can do to prevent irresponsible drinking is to teach your child RESPONSIBILITY. Love and respect your child and tell your child how much you do so every day. Don’t criticize the child, just the behavior. Never let a day go by without a hug.
Give your child many opportunities to FEEL COMPETENT. Expect your child to take school responsibilities seriously. Give your child household chores from toddlerhood on. Increase the complexity of these chores as the child gets older and hold the child responsible for completing them.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR CHILD’S FEELINGS. If the child seems sad or troubled, encourage him or her to talk about it. Talk about your own feelings and how you deal with them. Teach your child by example how to deal with strong feelings like anger (march vigorously around the room) or tension (take a relaxation break).
Help your children THINK FOR THEMSELVES. Don’t always solve their problems but rather teach them how to break a big problem into little, manageable pieces.
Be sure your child has HOPE FOR A WONDERFUL FUTURE. Talk about exciting career opportunities. Take your child to the library to read biographies of people in the child’s fields of interest.
Why not give just a sip of wine to a child? Because it gives the message that it’s OK to break the law in your house. It’s easier to say, truthfully, that alcohol is for adults only. When there is a toast at a family event, use grape juice or ginger ale for the children.
When do you let your child have alcohol? Go by the law. I believe every state has raised the legal drinking to twenty-one. Should parents be worried about teenagers getting their first taste of alcohol out in the world and overdoing it? Yes, which is why I took so much space explaining that what really matters is how the child feels about himself or herself. This will determine the degree to which the teen can resist peer pressure.
Of course it is prudent to explain to a young adult who reaches the age of legal drinking to go easy. Some parents make an occasion out of the first legal drink at home or take the young adult out for a birthday celebration which includes, for the first time, legal alcohol. Some kids take one sip and don’t like it. Two of my four children do not touch alcohol in any form, two drink small amounts on occasion.
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