Adolescent Medicine

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Kids and Alcohol

As much as parents may not like to think about it, the truth is that many kids and teens try alcohol during their high school and college years, long before it's legal for them to drink it. Research has shown that nearly 80% of high school kids have tried alcohol.

Although experimentation with alcohol can be common among kids, it's not safe or legal. So it's important to start discussing alcohol use and abuse with your kids at an early age and keep talking about it as they grow up.

The Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol interferes with a person's perception of reality and ability to make good decisions. This can be particularly hazardous for kids and teens who have less problem-solving and decision-making experience.

Short-term effects of drinking include:

  • distorted vision, hearing, and coordination
  • altered perceptions and emotions
  • impaired judgment, which can lead to accidents, drowning, and other risky behaviors like unsafe sex and drug use
  • bad breath
  • hangovers

Long-term effects include:

  • cirrhosis and cancer of the liver
  • loss of appetite
  • serious vitamin deficiencies
  • stomach ailments
  • heart and central nervous system damage
  • memory loss
  • an increased risk of impotence
  • high risk for overdosing

Long before your kids are presented with a chance to drink alcohol, you can increase the chances that they'll just say "no."

Childhood is a time of learning and discovery, so it's important to encourage kids to ask questions, even ones that might be hard to answer. Open, honest, age-appropriate communication now sets the stage for your kids to come to you later with other difficult topics or problems.

Talking to Kids About Alcohol

Preschoolers

Although 3- and 4-year-olds aren't ready to learn the facts about alcohol or other drugs, they start to develop the decision-making and problem-solving skills they will need later on. You can help them develop those skills in some simple ways.

For instance, let toddlers choose their own clothing and don't worry if the choices don't match. This lets them know you think they're capable of making good decisions. Assign simple tasks and let kids know what a big help they are.

And set a good example of the behavior that you want your kids to demonstrate. This is especially true in the preschool years when kids tend to imitate adults' actions as a way of learning. So, by being active, eating healthy, and drinking responsibly, parents teach their kids important lessons early on.

Ages 4 to 7

Kids this age still think and learn mostly by experience and don't have a good understanding of things that will happen in the future. So keep discussions about alcohol in the present tense and relate them to things that kids know and understand. For example, watching TV with your child can provide a chance to talk about advertising messages. Ask about the ads you see and encourage kids to ask questions too.

Kids are interested in how their bodies work, so this is a good time to talk about maintaining good health and avoiding substances that might harm the body. Talk about how alcohol hurts a person's ability to see, hear, and walk without tripping; it alters the way people feel; and it makes it hard to judge things like whether the water is too deep or if there's a car coming too close. And it gives people bad breath and a headache!

Ages 8 to 11

The later elementary school years are a crucial time in which you can influence your child's decisions about alcohol use. Kids at this age tend to love to learn facts, especially strange ones, and are eager to learn how things work and what sources of information are available to them.

So it's a good time to openly discuss facts about alcohol: its long- and short-term effects and consequences, its physical effects, and why it's especially dangerous for growing bodies.

Kids also can be heavily influenced by friends now. Their interests may be determined by what their peers think. So teach your child to say "no" to peer pressure, and discuss the importance of thinking and acting as an individual.

Casual discussions about alcohol and friends can take place at the dinner table as part of your normal conversation: "I've been reading about young kids using alcohol. Do you ever hear about kids using alcohol or other drugs in your school?"

Ages 12 to 17

By the teen years, your kids should know the facts about alcohol and your attitudes and beliefs about substance abuse. So use this time to reinforce what you've already taught them and focus on keeping the lines of communication open.

Teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, and their increasing need for independence may make them want to defy their parents' wishes or instructions. But if you make your teen feel accepted and respected as an individual, you increase the chances that your child will try to be open with you.

Kids want to be liked and accepted by their peers, and they need a certain degree of privacy and trust. Avoid excessive preaching and threats, and instead, emphasize your love and concern. Even when they're annoyed by parental interest and questions, teens still recognize that it comes with the territory.

Teaching Kids to Say "No"

Teach kids a variety of approaches to deal with offers of alcohol:

  • Encourage them to ask questions. If a drink of any kind is offered, they should ask, "What is it?" and "Where did you get it?"
  • Teach them to say "no, thanks" when the drink offered is an alcoholic one.
  • Remind them to leave any uncomfortable situation. Make sure they have money for transportation or a phone number where you or another responsible adult can be reached.
  • Teach kids never to accept a ride from someone who has been drinking. Some parents find that offering to pick up their kids from an uncomfortable situation — no questions asked — helps encourage kids to be honest and call when they need help.

Risk Factors

Times of transition, such as the onset of puberty or a parents' divorce, can lead kids to alcohol use. So teach your kids that even when life is upsetting or stressful, drinking alcohol as an escape can make a bad situation much worse.

Kids who have problems with self-control or low self-esteem are more likely to abuse alcohol. They may not believe that they can handle their problems and frustrations without using something to make them feel better.

Kids without a sense of connectedness with their families or who feel different in some way (appearance, economic circumstances, etc.) may also be at risk. Those who find it hard to believe in themselves desperately need the love and support of parents or other family members.

In fact, not wanting to harm the relationships between themselves and the adults who care about them is the most common reason that young people give for not using alcohol and other drugs.

General Tips

Fortunately, parents can do much to protect their kids from using and abusing alcohol:

  • Be a good role model. Consider how your use of alcohol or medications may influence your kids. Consider offering only nonalcoholic beverages at parties and other social events to show your kids that you don't need to drink to have fun.
  • Educate yourself about alcohol so you can be a better teacher. Read and collect information that you can share with kids and other parents.
  • Try to be conscious of how you can help build your child's self-esteem. For example, kids are more likely to feel good about themselves if you emphasize their strengths and positively reinforce healthy behaviors.
  • Teach kids to manage stress in healthy ways, such as by seeking help from a trusted adult or engaging in a favorite activity.

Recognizing the Signs

Despite your efforts, your child may still use — and abuse — alcohol. How can you tell? Here are some common warning signs:

  • the odor of alcohol
  • sudden change in mood or attitude
  • change in attendance or performance at school
  • loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities
  • discipline problems at school
  • withdrawal from family and friends
  • secrecy
  • association with a new group of friends and reluctance to introduce them to you
  • alcohol disappearing from your home
  • depression and developmental difficulties

It's important not to jump to conclusions based on only one or two signs. Adolescence is a time of change — physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. This can lead to erratic behavior and mood swings as kids try to cope with all of these changes.

If your child is using alcohol, there will usually be a cluster of these signs, like changes in friends, behavior, dress, attitude, mood, and grades. If you see a number of changes, look for all explanations by talking to your kids, but don't overlook substance abuse as a possibility.

Other tips to try:

  • Keep tabs on where your kids go.
  • Know the parents of your child's friends.
  • Always make sure you have a phone number where you can reach your child.
  • Have kids check in regularly when they're away from home.
  • When spending an extended length of time away from you, your child should check in periodically with a phone call, e-mail, or visit home.

For teens, especially those old enough to drive, consider negotiating and signing a behavioral contract. This contract should spell out the way you expect your child to behave and state the consequences if your teen drives under the influence. Follow through and take the keys away, if necessary.

Make part of the deal with your teen that you and the rest of your family also agree never to drink and drive. Also encourage responsible behaviors, such as planning for a designated driver or calling an adult for help rather than driving under the influence.

It's important to keep communication open and expectations reasonable. Tying responsible actions to freedoms such as a later curfew or a driver's license can be a powerful motivator. Teach your kids that freedom only comes with responsibility — a lesson that should last a lifetime.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: July 2011