Years ago, I was standing in a 9th grade classroom at 8:30 am, facing a group of teenagers who decided to pepper me with personal questions: “Come on, you drink, right?”
As a volunteer health teacher, it was my job to teach these kids about the value of certain skills that the students could implement in any type of situation, whether they be faced with alcohol, drugs, or relationship problems. Throughout the health education program, we stressed the importance of communication, accessing appropriate resources, and making thoughtful decisions. The most vital of the lot, I would argue, was communication. You need it to effectively utilize any of the other skills.
At first I was hesitant to answer the question, but how could I preach the value of communication, and then shut down their curiosity? I couldn’t. I answered with a yes, explaining that I was of age and I occasionally drank responsibly. I emphasized the importance of planning with your friends and ensuring a safe ride home, before the night begins.
Parents are often faced with questions from their children that seem awkward, personal, and age-inappropriate, but keeping the lines of communication open is absolutely vital.
April is Alcohol Responsibility Month, and research shows that parents are the number one influence on their kids’ decision to drink, or not to drink, alcohol. Getting the conversation started can be tough, and many parents don’t feel confident in their knowledge or with their own drinking habits to even start the conversation. Below are six ways in which you can engage with your kids, answer their questions, and set them up for a lifetime of healthy decision making.
1. Start early
It’s easy to save this conversation for when your kids are in high school, but starting the conversation as early as age nine, or as early as the questions begin, can help prepare kids to make healthy decisions down the line. Alcohol is present in many “normal” situations – family dinners, barbeques, restaurants, TV, and even in religious ceremonies.
Conversations with your nine-year-old are certainly going to be different than conversations with your fifteen-year-old. When talking to younger kids, it’s important to let them know that drinking is a behavior some adults choose, like driving, or living alone. You can explain that their brains and bodies are still developing, and that alcohol can affect them differently than adults.
When your kids are a bit older, they need help creating strategies to use in social situations where alcohol may be present. High school is the time to be frank with your kids about what the risks and boundaries are.
2. Model responsible and healthy behaviors
“Do as I say, not as I do,” is not an effective method of reaching kids, who are paying more attention to your choices than you may think.
Being confident in your own drinking behaviors and modeling responsible choices is key. When your kids are younger, having a conversation about responsibility in front of them can be effective. For example, if you and your partner are going out, and you plan on drinking, plan your safe ride home in front of your kids: “Do you mind driving home tonight? I’m planning on having a few drinks with dinner.” This introduces them to the concept of not driving while impaired, and shows them that you think ahead.
Every family has a different relationship with alcohol, and that’s ok. Feeling confident about your relationship with drinking will empower you to be open with your kids and prepare them to make healthy choices. Whether you don’t drink, only have alcohol at holiday gatherings or celebratory events, or enjoy wine with dinner every night, make sure you can explain to your kids why you make the choices you do, as an adult.
3. Spark their interest with something fun
While alcohol and underage drinking are undoubtedly serious topics, there are ways to start the conversation with your kids in a fun and engaging way. Our program, Ask, Listen, Learn: Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mixprovides a suite of videos and activities that serve as great conversation starters. There are seven animated videos that take kids on a journey through the adolescent brain, teaching them the facts about how alcohol affects each part. The videos, while educational, are exciting and funny, and designed to spark their interest in living a healthy lifestyle and saying no to underage drinking.
Meeting kids where they are, in terms of digital and relatable content, can be helpful. Try watching a few of the videos with your kids, and asking them to share their thoughts afterwards.
4. Keep the lines of communication open
You can be a resource for your child. Keeping the lines of communication open, and being willing to answer their tough questions, will keep them coming back to you when they’re going through something difficult. On the other hand, if they don’t feel comfortable coming to you, who knows where they may turn, and what type of information they could be getting.
By openly and honestly communicating, you can make your opinions on the matter clear, set boundaries, and provide the correct information that will guide them in making healthy decisions.
5. Know the facts
Prepare yourself to be a resource for your child by getting information from trustworthy sources and being confident in your own knowledge. Check out the following sites for some great information, and always consult your kids’ pediatrician and educators if you’re looking for more.
6. Engage with their educators
Underage drinking is a community problem, which means that many caring adults have a role to play. While our own research shows that parents are the number one influence on their kids’ decision to drink – or not to drink, teachers and other educators can still be involved in the mix. Often, the conversation about alcohol will start in a classroom, whether it is during health class or a school counseling session. If this is the case, kids should be encouraged by their educators to take what they’ve learned and share it with their parents. Similarly, counselors or teachers should be in touch with parents about the subjects being taught in school. If you have a concern or a question, it is more than appropriate to speak with your child’s educator, as they may have insight or helpful tips in navigating the topic with your child.
Helen Gaynor is the Educational Programs lead at the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, where she works to develop alcohol education content for the organization’s longstanding program, Ask, Listen, Learn: Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mix. In addition, she manages the program’s partnerships and stakeholder outreach, researching ways to effectively reach parents, teachers and administrators. Before joining Responsibility.org, Helen worked as a high school health educator in Washington, DC, as well as in academic research. To learn more, visit Responsibility.org.