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Now Is the Right Time!
Now is the right time to become more fully aware of the messages your child is receiving about alcohol, the impacts, and how you can shape the messages you send going forward to promote healthy choices. Though children are typically not tempted by peer pressure to drink alcohol until the ages of 11-14, they still receive messages and modeling throughout their childhood that will have a direct impact on whether or not they’ll be able to make responsible decisions about alcohol when the time comes. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, what you model and the messages you send related to alcohol in your 5-year-old child’s early years can set them up for success.
National and Montana trends regarding alcohol use are headed in the right direction. Alcohol use among teens across the United States and in Montana is less prevalent than even five years ago.1 In Montana, rates of drinking among high school students are slightly higher than the national average.2 Alcohol is the most widely used substance among children and can have a major impact on their brain development.3 The teen years are the ages when your children will be introduced to greater risk-taking situations that may involve alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behaviors. These challenges arise as a normal part of your child’s development.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can prepare your child with information, coping strategies, and responsible decision-making skills to prepare them for when they are faced with these risk-taking situations. The steps below will help your child learn more about your family values and how they relate to alcohol and will grow your child’s skills to make healthy choices about alcohol use.
Why Mixed Messages About Alcohol?
Children receive many mixed messages about alcohol consumption and its role in their lives and communities. They may see commercials or alcohol products placed in a glamorous context in television shows. They may encounter drunk adults at weddings, festivals, or concerts. These outside messages, though they have an impact, are not as critical as the messages that you and your immediate family and friends send to your children through your actions about alcohol. And, it’s never too late to become more fully aware of the messages your child is receiving, their impacts, and how you can shape the messages you send going forward to promote healthy choices.
Today, in the short term, promoting healthy choices about alcohol can
- help you better understand what your child is learning about alcohol and whether the messages they are receiving are desirable or need to change;
- strengthen communications between family members about the role of alcohol;
- help your child make healthy choices and responsible decisions; and
- help you feel confident that you’ve prepared your child to make healthy choices.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- builds capacity to assert boundaries and establish healthy relationships;
- builds skills in self-control;
- cultivates healthy habits that will contribute to their ongoing emotional and mental wellbeing;
- makes more conscious choices about their behaviors; and
- feels a greater sense of trust and support from you.
This five-step process helps you and your child learn more about alcohol use and how you can promote healthy choices while preventing peer pressure that leads to alcohol use and misuse. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about healthy choices about alcohol by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- can think through and problem solve any peer pressure they might experience related to alcohol use;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies and taking responsibility for their own relationships);
- will have more motivation and courage to take responsibility for their actions; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Ask questions and listen carefully to your child’s responses since they will shape how you will talk about alcohol use. Questions you could ask include “What have you noticed about how foods and drinks affect your body? How do various foods and drinks make you feel?”
- Children do not automatically make the connection between what they eat and drink and how it impacts how their body and how they feel. For example, you may want to highlight sugar in drinks like sodas or in food like candy and how it gives you a lot of energy fast but then depletes your energy just as quickly. You may want to highlight protein and vegetables and how they can build muscle and offer you energy that stays with you. You may want to highlight caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea, or energy drinks that give you a jolt of energy. These examples help a child make the relationship between what they put into their bodies and how it makes them feel. These reflections will lay the groundwork for future healthy choices and may be the first time your child has considered substances in this way.
- “How do we make healthy choices with foods and drinks in our family?” Be sure to think of examples of ways that you make healthy choices like saving dessert for after dinner, eating candy in moderation, or eating a fruit or vegetable with each meal.
- Ask your child about alcohol. Listen carefully to what your child understands and the gaps in understanding. It will help you formulate future teaching and practice opportunities.
- “What do you know about alcoholic beverages?”
- “When do you see it and how is it used?”
- “Do you have any ideas on why alcohol might only be appropriate for grownups?”
Your child may have different impressions about your attitudes and values toward alcohol based on what they’ve observed. Listen carefully to their understanding of the role of alcohol in your family’s life and how they perceive your values. Their impressions may surprise you!
Don’t get caught up in feeling defensive about your own drinking practices. Keep focused on the fact that your child is just at the start of understanding alcohol. It’s a brand new chance to offer essential guidance. Focus on the impacts you can have today and in the future.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Though your child has likely been exposed to adults drinking, you may or may not have had a specific conversation about the role of alcohol. The first impressions about alcohol your child may have formed could have come from a number of experiences with adults. Because alcohol can be such a frequent and common presence in daily life and certainly at celebratory events, it can be challenging to figure out what lessons your child has learned from that modeling. Yet modeling (your actions) is the greatest teacher.
- Examine family messages around the role of alcohol and think about what they’re teaching your child. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
- Where do you take your child where alcohol is present?
- How are these places shaping your child’s perception about alcohol?
- Is drinking alcohol a part of your daily lives? Weekly lives?
- When is alcohol present when you child is around?
- Is alcohol consumed in moderation typically?
- Do individuals drink to the point of intoxication (more than 1-2 drinks)?
- Do children sip or have a taste of alcohol at any events?
- Are children given their own alcoholic beverages (under 21) at a certain age?
- When someone becomes intoxicated, how do other adults react to that person?
- Are they laughed at?
- Are they the source of ridicule?
- Are they a source of shame?
- Do people reject them?
- Do they become more popular?
- How is that person treated?
- If there are relatives that are dealing with alcohol use disorders like alcohol addiction, how are they treated by the family? How are they spoken about when they are not around? The answers to these questions formulate the experiences your child witnesses and what they are currently being taught about alcohol. Though you may want to have the family value of kindness and loving support, alcohol use and misuse can be a source of shame in many families. Understanding what challenges you face can better position you to teach your child about alcohol in healthy, constructive ways.
- Talk about your family history with alcohol. Research shows that children of adults with alcohol use disorders are between four and ten times more likely to become alcohol dependent themselves.4 These children are more likely to begin drinking at a younger age and progressively struggle as they grow.5 If this is true for your family, talking about family history can break that family cycle and teach your child how to make healthy choices.
- Create empathy and compassion through understanding. Promote empathy and understanding as family members deal with challenges in life. This is the ideal time to teach your child about the reasons behind alcohol use and misuse.
- Become a strong parent advocate. If you are in a circumstance in which relatives become obviously intoxicated, trust your gut. Your family is likely no longer safe since there are individuals present who have lost control. When people become unsafe, it’s your responsibility as a parent (or someone in a parenting role) to get you and your child to safety. Leave the celebration. Let your child know that the reason you are leaving is because there are adults who have made unhealthy choices and have lost their sense of control.
- Talk about the feelings someone might have who wants to escape their lives. Ask your child if they have ever felt that way. Reassure your child that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by your own problems at times. Offer your thoughts on ways you gain a bigger perspective on the world and the possibilities.
- Take the learning further because your child will increasingly need to find ways to deal with stress and social pressures. Expectations of who they are and what they “should” do increase with age and a child’s social awareness. This is the perfect time to discuss and brainstorm options for coping strategies. You could ask, “When you are upset, what makes you feel better?” Brainstorm a list together. Write it down.
- Discuss values. Instead of diving into a discussion about alcohol, first you may want to consider questions about health and healthy development.
- What do you do to keep healthy (diet, exercise, preventative doctors visits)?
- How do food and drinks fit into keeping your body healthy?
- What are the many substances that alter your body and brain (like coffee, tea, over-the-counter medicine, prescription medicine, alcohol, energy drinks, others)?
- How do those altering substances fit into a healthy lifestyle?
- What do you and/or your partner or other family members believe should be the role of alcohol in family life and with children?
- What do you want your child to learn?
- How can you align your own actions with those values?
- Set goals that demonstrate your values. Now that you have articulated your family’s hopes and values, consider what goals you can set for yourself and what goals you can encourage your child to set in order to align actions with values.
- Create a family ritual of expressing gratitude in your lives. Children are often corrected and told what they are not doing right. You can create a balancing force in your child’s life by focusing on what is good, strong, and healthy in your lives. Whether you make a habit of sharing grateful thoughts, sitting down to a family meal, or keeping a running list on your family’s chalkboard, find a way to share specifics on what is positive in your lives. Your child will start to think in those terms as well. Children who are more aware of how they belong and are loved are more likely to respect rules and boundaries and make healthy choices.
For 10-year-olds (or younger if your family encounters relatives who drink too much), talk about why an adult might want to lose some of their control and numb their thinking. Often it relates to their level of stress or even hard times in which they are attempting to cope. Digging a bit into the reasons behind alcohol use and misuse can begin to stir empathy in yourself and in your child. This does not mean supporting the unhealthy behaviors but rather realizing that they have an illness they must treat, just as you might view a family member dealing with diabetes, asthma, or another debilitating chronic disease. This is a family value worth communicating!
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively working together, or trying out a new skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary for children to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Take the first small step. If you’ve set a goal to leave situations that feel unsafe, for example, set your family’s expectations ahead of time. If a wedding is coming up that you know could pose a challenge with drinking relatives, decide ahead of time on a reasonable time to leave together before trouble might begin.
- Perhaps your child has set a goal to resist daily candy temptations and only eat it on the weekends. Find specific ways you and your child can take small steps to work on the healthy choice goals you’ve set.
- When your child comes to you with an interpersonal problem whether it’s with a friend or a teacher, reflect back feelings. Ask what choices your child might have in communicating with this other person. Perhaps offer supportive language that will help your child broach the topic. Show your confidence that they can manage their own communications and work through their own problems.
- Practice empathy. When your child comes home with reports of a conflict between friends or of a mistake a friend made, talk about that friend’s perspective. You could ask questions like, “Why would she have chosen to be mean to her friend when they’ve been friends since kindergarten?” Usually misguided behavior is evidence of hurt surfacing or unmet emotional needs. Practice digging for reasons with your child and showing empathy for the person who is struggling. Instead of judging, your child will practice understanding others’ feelings and thoughts better. This can be a significant asset as they navigate challenging social situations.
- Tell stories of your own or your child’s ability to empathize and be kind to others. These stories will begin to shape your child’s identity as one who is able to empathize and act compassionately no matter the social pressures.
- Encourage leadership. After all, in every group, a leader emerges. And, they are typically the individuals who pressure others to go along with what they want to do. As you build your child’s social and emotional skills, they will have an opportunity to influence the decision making of their friendship group.
- Your young leader will need to become regularly reflective about their choices since they’re influencing a group. Talk about social situations and opportunities for decisions. Give your child plenty of chances to decide where they fall on a variety of social issues (thus exercising their sense of responsibility and right and wrong).
When your child comes to you with a peer pressure challenge, reflect back their feelings. Ask open-ended questions to prompt their thinking. Show your trust and support that they can solve their own problems with reflection.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve learned together the mixed messages and modeling your child encounters related to alcohol. You’ve practiced by setting goals and working toward them together while sharing success stories. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions.
- “How are you feeling about your friends? Do they treat you well? Do they pressure you?”
- “Are there times when your friends or other classmates want you to do something you don’t want to do?”
- Reflect on outcomes. “Seems like you are worrying today about your friends and their impressions of you. Often it helps if you talk about it. What’s going on?”
- Stay engaged. Be ready to talk when your child is eager. It can feel like their willingness to talk comes at the most inopportune moments. Remember that these are precious windows of opportunity for you to learn about what’s going on in their lives and to offer support.
- Engage in further practice. Talk about times when you don’t want to go with the crowd. Perhaps the school PTA made a decision, and you weren’t supportive. How will you keep your relationships but also make responsible decisions for yourself and your family that may not go along with the crowd? Help build your child’s leadership and assertive communication skills by talking about times when you set healthy boundaries and maintained relationships as well.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You were able to set a healthy boundary with your friend — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you make a healthy food choice, I will let you pick out a snack later” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You picked a healthy food choice. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize when your child chooses something healthy when those around them are not.
- If your child decides to forego dessert because they’re too full, recognize their good decision. They’re listening to their body cues.
- When your child stops to reflect about relationships, consider consequences and how their decisions will impact others. These deserve recognition because they are the fundamentals of responsible decision making.
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t just wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition is a tool to promote positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort, like using self-control, and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Children love to explore new places and experiences. They also have a curiosity for nature. Include hugs as ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Connect with other Montana parents about underage drinking and drugs at LetsFaceItMt.com.