By Susan Kurlander
JCS Prevention Education
Alcohol, a legal drug for those of us over 21, is part of our lives whether for ceremonial/religious, cultural, social or, in some cases, medicinal reasons. How many of us have put a wine-soaked piece of gauze in our son’s mouth at his bris to help quiet him? How many of us have allowed our son or daughter to have a sip of beer while we’re watching a sporting event on TV or hosting another family for a barbecue? How many of us have made alcohol a part of a life cycle celebration such as a bar/bat mitzvah?
We might ask ourselves the question: As a parent, is it wrong to do any of the above?
The reality is that somewhere along the line, our children most likely will have had alcohol to drink way before their 21st birthday. What is important, however, is to make sure we send a clear message to our children that alcohol is a drug, which means it is a substance that can change the way we think, feel and act.
Because alcohol goes directly to the frontal part of the brain after it is absorbed in the digestive system and then through the blood stream, it can change our ability to make good, less risky decisions. Research shows that young people who begin “using” alcohol around the young age of 14 are four times more likely to develop an alcohol problem.
Remember—alcohol is a gateway drug. That means that most people who move on to “harder” drugs begin by using alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana. Alcohol use can start innocently, but can escalate to cause problems for young people whose bodies and minds are still developing.
How do we send a clear message to our children that alcohol is a drug and that we need to be careful about its use?
• Know what your standards are regarding alcohol use and communicate those standards to your children. Alcohol use is not acceptable when there is a risk of hurting ourselves or others.
• Don’t condone or support underage drinking. Be aware of trends among teens like pre-gaming.
• Discuss possible consequences of alcohol use, underage use in particular, such as reckless behavior, effect on body development, legal ramifications and effect on relationships.
• Use teachable moments, whenever possible, but especially when a child is confused, curious or conflicted about alcohol use (For example, when a child asks why Uncle Sam acted so silly at the family party or why Daddy’s friend doesn’t have a beer when they’re watching the Ravens game).
• Help your child understand that some people drink alcohol to cover up or change uncomfortable or upsetting feelings, but that change or cover up is only temporary. Encourage your child to identify and acknowledge his/her feelings and to develop coping skills to deal with difficult feelings.
• Encourage the building of your child’s self- esteem through activities he/she enjoys and is good at (drama, art, writing, music, etc.). This may sound unrelated to the topic of alcohol use, but a child who feels good about him/herself may not look to alcohol as a way to feel better.
• Role model responsible use of alcohol being clear that you consider the consequences when you decide to use alcohol.
• Try to have family dinner time with everyone together as much as possible. You might also want to schedule (I know the word “schedule” is probably already stressing you out) a family meeting time where everyone is able to talk about whatever is on their mind without any judgment or criticism.
You may make decisions for your own children, but it’s not your place to offer or provide alcohol to their friends. Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open. Having a conversation with your child about alcohol use is not a one- time discussion. Be age appropriate, open and honest. Be willing to answer some possibly difficult questions. Always remember that you are the most influential person in your child’s life—make the most of that influence while being fair, firm and fun.
Learn more about JCS teen and young adult prevention programs at jcsbaltimore.org/prevention/.