By Dr. Dawn Taylor
When should you start talking with children about alcohol? Now!
Children start forming opinions about alcohol when they are as young as four or five years old. That's really not surprising when you consider that images of alcohol are widespread in our society. What children see and hear often leads them to believe that alcohol helps people have more fun. What they may not be aware of is the problems that can be associated with it.
Many adults delay talking about alcohol because they believe that drinking is something that children would never be involved in at a young age. The truth is most children try alcohol for the first time between the ages of 10 and 14 years. That's why it is important to begin talking openly and naturally about alcohol to children when they are young. Children who are aware of family standards surrounding alcohol use are less likely to base their developing values on what they learn from television, movies, magazines, and peers. Short frequent conversations about alcohol use when children are young are more likely to be effective than lengthy lectures when they are older.When children are in preschool:
Engage children in brief conversations about what alcohol is and how your family views drinking. Examine your own values and behaviors regarding alcohol use. If you drink, set a good example by drinking responsibly and in moderation. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Develop a clear messge on alcohol use by children. For example, "In our family, kids do not drink alcohol." Create an environment in which children feel comfortable talking about feelings and asking questions. Open communication in the early years will make it more likely that children will turn to you for guidance on alcohol-related issues later on.
When children are in elementary school:
Continue to engage children in conversations on alcohol use. Take advantage of naturally occurring openings for discussions, such as a TV ad for alcohol or a news report on an alcohol-related accident. Be clear about what your family standards for alcohol use by children are. Be aware that children are less likely to use alcohol in families that have established firm "no tolerance" rules about underage drinking. Don't be naive. Remember that many elementary school age children try alcohol. Monitor your children's activities: know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. Give your children opportunities to develop decision-making skills, opportunities to practice them, and recognition for making responsible choices. Theses skills become increasingly important as children begin to spend more time away from family and in the company of peers during elementary school and beyond.
So why is alcohol use by kids such a big deal? Studies show that exposing a child's still developing brain to alcohol can cause lasting harm. Alcohol use is associated with a multitude of negative consequences, including problems at school and memory loss. It is linked to death by drowning, suicide, homicide, and driving incidents. Youth who drink at young ages are much more likely to become dependent on alcohol later. They are also more likely to become sexually active at an earlier age. Because early alcohol use is related to so many serious problems, it is important to have discussions about drinking when children are young.
Want to find out more? Building Blocks for a Healthy Future is an early childhood substance abuse prevention program developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that provides information on talking to young children about alcohol and other important issues.
About Dr. Dawn Taylor
Dr. Dawn Taylor has a Ph.D. in developmental/child clinical psychology from Penn State University. She has over 35 years of experience working with children, youth, and families in residential and community-based settings, including parent education programs, group homes, afterschool centers, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Communities That Care. She edits and contributes to a parenting column that appears weekly in the Centre Daily Times. With two grown-up kids, three grandkids, and a professional career that has always been centered around kids, Dr. Dawn is happy to have the opportunity to contribute to Whyzz!