Surrounded by the warm spirits of the holidays—liquid and otherwise—it’s a good time to consider how parents can best ensure that their kids will develop healthy and safe attitudes and behaviors with regard to alcohol and other drug use.
Children do what we do, not what we say. Kids learn by watching, imitating, and then practicing what they’ve observed. They internalize values and behaviors from the media, the Internet, peers, siblings, and especially parents. What makes modeling such a powerful avenue of learning is that often it takes place without the role model or child being aware of it. This is its strength—and downfall.
Research shows that kids are most likely to imitate the behavior of warm and nurturing models, which is why parents are positioned to be the child’s most powerful role models, and why, if parents are not nurturing or available, kids will turn to other adults, social media, peers, gangs, or celebrities for social and behavioral cues.
As role models, parents have to ask: What messages are we giving to our kids? Is alcohol a part of every social event our children see? If there is drinking in the house, is it moderate? Is it a supplement to social conviviality, or the main event? Do we come home from a hard day at work and say, “Boy, do I need a drink,” and create a connection in our child’s mind between alcohol and dealing with stress?
It’s never too early to start talking with kids about alcohol and other drugs. With young kids, parents need to point out harmful substances or items that the child may not touch, and explain how medicines work. Talks such as these begin to establish in the child’s mind the concept of “good” drugs/substances, misused drugs/substances, and harmful drugs/substances. By age six, children should understand:
- what drugs and medicines are
- how foods, medicines, poisons, and illegal drugs differ
- why taking the wrong substance or too much of it can hurt you
- family alcohol and other drug rules
- basic refusal skills
- which adults to trust and go to for questions or in an emergency.
A good way of getting into discussions with older kids is to bring up stories in the news. For example, in this past year, ex-Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s antics, Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, and Justin Bieber’s alcohol- and other drug-related behaviors could have all stimulated interesting exchanges. Another approach is to pose non-judgmental, open-ended questions such as:
- What makes a drug good or bad?
- Which is worse, physical or psychological addiction?
- Should sports figures endorse alcoholic beverages?
- Do you think most parents are clueless when it comes to kids and alcohol and other drug use?
- Is it okay for teenagers to try alcohol and other drugs?
- Is there anyone whose use you worry about?
- Can you imagine a circumstance in which YOU could get into trouble with alcohol or other drugs?
- If you had a friend in trouble with drugs, what would you do?
These conversations need to be ongoing—not just “The Talk”—because decisions about use are ongoing. Drug education is similar to sex education in that kids absorb it according to their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical maturity. As children encounter new people, situations, temptations, and aspects of themselves, they revisit their values, priorities, and choices. Information must be repeated and re-discussed as it becomes more relevant to the child’s stage of development, social context, and actual or potential behavior.
Parents should talk with middle school children about:
- why people use and/or abuse alcohol and other drugs
- differences between use, abuse, and addiction (physical and psychological)
- short- and long-term effects of alcohol and other drug use, especially for young people whose bodies, minds, and social skills are still developing
- relationships between use and self-esteem, positive values, and personal achievement.
With high schoolers, parents should revisit earlier topics, while also including:
- risk factors for abuse and addiction
- consequences of use on social, emotional, intellectual, and physical development
- media and cultural messages that promote use
- teens’ false normative beliefs that overestimate use by their peers
- ramifications of use for family relationships, personal values, and identity development
- when, where, and how to intervene and/or seek help for themselves or a friend.
Such discussions occur within the context of the home environment, and research has identified a number of factors that affect adolescent use of alcohol in positive or negative ways. Studies suggest that children are less likely to abuse substances or grow up to have drinking problems in families where:
- parents are nurturing and democratic
- family rituals are maintained (e.g., eating together, celebrations, vacations)
- parents model moderation if they do drink
- drinking is presented in morally neutral terms
- drunkenness is not viewed as a humorous condition
- family members are neither pressured to drink nor singled out for choosing not to
- policies for drinking are understood and agreed to by all family members
- drinking is not viewed as an activity for its own sake.
Similarly, research suggests another set of factors that increase the likelihood that children will become problem drinkers:
- parents employ authoritarian, permissive, or inconsistent child-rearing methods
- parents convey mixed messages regarding acceptable drinking practices
- parents and children have distant or strained relationships
- family rituals have broken down
- parent-child communication is poor.
If this sounds like a heavy load, it is, with parents expected to act as positive role models, substance abuse prevention specialists, drug educators, counselors, media literacy experts, cheerleaders, disciplinarians, and security blankets all rolled into one wise, tolerant, beneficent, patient, and tireless being. Fortunately, substance abuse prevention is one area where parents can draw upon school and community resources by:
- supporting, and if necessary, funding a comprehensive prevention program in their child’s school
- forming a parents prevention committee to sponsor parent education workshops, create parent prevention handbooks, or develop safe home agreements
- creating a “solidarity network” of parents who agree to take the same stand in relation to substance use, parties, and checking up on their kids’ whereabouts
- building telephone/email/text chains for communication
- organizing alcohol- and other drug-free parties and activities for kids.
Well, nobody said child-rearing would be easy. If this all seems overwhelming, maybe you need a drink. Ooops. Forget I said that.