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Talk About Drinking

What Our Kids Need to Hear

To this day, my son will watch me as I raise a vodka martini to my lips and say, “Mom, you realize you are killing off your brain cells every time you do that?” He’s 30, but he learned this from the DARE program when he was in elementary school. He is not a drinker, wine now and then, but that bit of education marked him for life. And me too, because I can’t imbibe without hearing his voice in my head. What your kids hear from you and others about alcohol can make a lasting impression – more lasting than you might think.

At what age should you talk with your children about alcohol? According to experts, even pre-schoolers need information about alcohol. Whether your child is four or five or a little older, if he’s exposed to media he might think that drinking alcohol is a way to have more fun, be popular, and perhaps, even be a better athlete. Think about the Super Bowl ads for example.

MJ Corcoran was a school administrator for 20 years. She felt parents and teachers both needed solid advice and suggestions to help bring about positive change in children regarding their views on alcohol consumption. She tells you she is not a counselor, but a coach. “The difference between coaching and counseling is that coaching is action-oriented,” says Corcoran, who became so well known as an effective parenting coach, that Anheuser-Busch sought her out for collaboration on Family Talk, the company’s underage drinking prevention program for parents. The certified parenting coach says it’s never too early to begin the dialogue about drinking alcohol.

The first step for parents and caregivers, says Corcoran, is to know how you feel about the subject. What will your rules be? Will you drink in front of your child? If the answer is yes to that second question, that’s fine, as long as you are firm and consistent in your words and actions, whatever your rules are. “When it comes to alcohol, we should make sure we don’t send mixed signals by applying different rules for different situations – such as allowing teens to drink in your house, or acting in a way that doesn’t match our stated rules and beliefs.”

She says the coaching style should always relate to the age of the child. With preschoolers, you are educating and setting standards. “This is when parents might say to the child, ‘Here is what happens to your body when you drink alcohol’ and then list some of the effects,” says Corcoran, who adds that it’s important to establish boundaries and rules: “You can say, ‘Children are not allowed to drink. It is against the law.’” Then be prepared to answer the inevitable questions. “Your child may ask why a neighbor allows his child to taste beer, or why you are drinking in the evening.” Corcoran encourages a firm stand, but advises adults to be prepared to answer some good questions from kids.

With children of this age, you are in a position to make the rules without negotiation. However, you do want your child to feel comfortable asking you questions about these rules. Corcoran suggests building an atmosphere of trust between you and your child so that the child will always be able to come to you when he has questions or finds something troubling. At the same time, take this opportunity to educate your child. Provide all the information about the negatives of alcohol, what it does to the brain, and how it can change the behaviors of the drinkers. You may use examples in your own family. This is the time when what you teach them will have the most impact. At this age, like no other, you have your child’s undivided attention.

When your child is about six, you begin the change from leader to facilitator. Children at this age increasingly compare their situations to those of peers and neighbors. They will question more and challenge more. They notice inconsistencies. Corcoran says to go with it. “Our job now is to help them analyze and process the world around them,” the coach says. “We should shift our focus from concrete rules to becoming facilitators, helping our kids understand new experiences and friendships within the context of our personal beliefs and values.”

Corcoran uses this metaphor: “In the airplane of life, our kids have gone from passengers to co-pilots. We need to let them fly the plane every once in a while.” Teach kids to have the confidence to say no. She advises parents to build that confidence at home by letting them win battles – while keeping your values. Show them you trust their decision-making ability. “Say things like, ‘You are smart. I know you know the answers. You will make the right choices.’ And when you can, reinforce their ability to make decisions.” By letting them choose, and letting them win, she says, “children will be better prepared to take a stand with friends if you allow them that power and respect their decisions.”

You can also emphasize that while others do things differently, “our way is this way.” You can and should frame things as a reflection of your family value system. “Say, ‘I know that some parents let their kids drink alcohol. But in our family, we don’t drink until we’re 21.’” Here’s another suggestion for parents from Corcoran: “I would like to tell you everything I know about drinking alcohol – it may not be what others believe – but it’s what we believe and do.” She adds to make sure you ask your kids if they have questions and urge them to come to you.

Mary Catherine Wright of the West End, says she and her husband, George, first spoke to their 7- and 9-year-old daughters about drinking sometime around kindergarten. “We have discussed this at the dinner table, casually around the house, and at bedtime,” says Wright. She credits her husband with having the right tone for the topic. “George is really good at discussing in a convincing and non-threatening way why drinking alcohol or using drugs is harmful to our bodies. He thought a lot about this as a teenager himself and came to the conclusion he did not want to do anything that would impair his intellectual faculties or good judgment.” For her part, Wright says she tries to emphasize the positive aspects of staying away from alcohol. “When the topic comes up, we discuss it. That is how we handle it… frankly, comfortably, and hopefully, without making those things look more tempting because they are forbidden,” Wright says.

When your kids advance through elementary school, you should get some help from the school systems and local law enforcement in the form of programs like PEAK and DARE. Substantial education about alcohol (and drugs and tobacco) is provided. If your kids are anything like mine, since the material comes from law enforcement officers, the message might be more memorable.

What about as your child matures? “When your child becomes a teen, it’s more about facilitating a dialogue,” Corcoran says. “Parents need to ask questions like, ‘What will you do if this situation occurs? How will you handle things if this happens?’ You can still set rules, but try not to be confrontational, just set up consequences.” For the older child and young adult, it is a true coaching relationship. You ask, you listen, and you have more intense conversations. And according to Corcoran, if you’re among the fortunate, you share even more important information.

Diane York is a Richmond-based freelancer, mother, and grandmother and regular contributor to RFM. She writes about lifestyle and wellness issues.
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