Ask someone without kids what kind of parent he or she would be and you’ll hear everything from “dependable” to “understanding” to “the kind my parent wasn’t!”
When kids enter the picture, however, those parenting proclamations don’t always hold up. Because, really, just how understanding will you be when you discover your 14 year old drinking with her friends behind the stadium bleachers?
There’s a problem with declaring yourself a certain “type” of parent, because most people have no idea how they’ll respond until they’re actually faced with a parenting dilemma or new situation. That’s why parents who vowed they’d never co-sleep with their kids occasionally find themselves with a small arm over their face and a foot in the stomach at 3 a.m.
So when it comes to the big issues, like drugs and alcohol, the best thing that you can do as a parent is to be aware and to communicate often. Because, if you don’t, your child’s peer group – and the internet – is more than happy to take over for you. This then leaves your child alone to process mature, oftentimes unsolicited, content about underage drinking.
It’s important for you to put context around the alcohol-related messaging your kids receive, in a sensible way that also aligns with your family’s values. You have more influence than you may think on whether or not your child drinks, so it’s crucial you talk openly and often about the following things:
Give them the facts
In a non-threatening tone, stick with the facts. Discuss the effects of alcohol on the brain, and what that means in terms of mental and physical health, safety and making good decisions. Talk about the long-term intellectual effects. Kids are four times more likely to abuse alcohol as an adult if they start drinking as a teenager. And, if there’s a history of alcoholism in the family, now is a good time to start talking about addiction, too.
Empathize with them
Acknowledge you understand – and lived through – peer pressure. Discuss the importance of not comparing oneself to others in real life or in the media. It’s normal for kids to question their parents’ values as they try to figure out where they measure up with their own beliefs, abilities, attitudes and physical appearance. Make sure they understand that the negative effects of drinking alcohol overpower the perceived positive of fitting in. Give them examples of how there’s strength and respect in standing alone when it comes to underage drinking.
Check in with your kids on a daily or weekly basis so they know you’re interested. Ask open-ended questions about their friends and school, and keep an eye on their confidence level. Notice if they’re seeming withdrawn, uninterested in activities they normally like or exceptionally concerned with their friends. These are all signs that your child might be hiding something or need some guidance. Make it a point to roll play with your child about what he or she should firmly say or do if they’re confronted with an underage drinking situation.
Walk the talk
Children look to their parents as role models. Drink in moderation yourself or get help now if you’re struggling with an addiction. It’s important for kids to know that everyone struggles, but alcohol is not a useful or healthy way to deal with problems. Avoid laughing and commenting on people being drunk, and let your children know your expectations about underage drinking and family rules.
Believe in your own power to help your children steer clear of drinking in the teen years. Make it easy for your children to talk to you. Let them see you can be trusted by how you react to the information they tell you. Doing so will keep the door open for more conversations about what it takes to live a happy, productive, healthy life.