Underage Drinking: A Family Matter
Parents Set an Example
As their children were nearing adolescence, Edward and Lisa realized they were not happy with the example they were setting. Family barbecues no longer featured endless supplies of lemonade and iced tea, but large quantities of beer and wine, and alcohol was part of their daily lives. They also realized they were participating less in their creative and healthy hobbies, like reading and exercising. After discussing a plan to change, they talked with their children about how alcohol had become a bigger part of life than they liked, and announced their new plan.
When children see parents using alcohol on a daily basis or to handle stress, they are more likely to have trouble with alcohol themselves, partly because they are not seeing their parents model healthy ways of dealing with their feelings.
Children learn a lot when they hear a parent say, "What a lousy day, I need a drink!" or when they see a tired or stressed parent pouring a drink. But when alcohol is used mostly at meals, as part of family holidays or celebrations, children learn that alcohol is for special occasions. It's that simple -- Our example is powerful.
Stopping the Cycle
Often, long-term effects of underage drinking are not obvious until much later. For Tom, a 55-year-old father who reared his children in the same heavy-drinking environment he experienced as an underage drinker, all the significant negative things that happened in his life are related to alcohol. It wasn't until he was 53 -- the same age his father was when he died from alcohol-related problems -- that Tom listened to his doctor's advice to cut down for health reasons.
By then he'd lost his marriage and had been arrested for a DUI. Two of his three children had alcohol problems. After participating in a peer self-help discussion group for the past year, his drinking is now within healthy limits, according to his doctor, and he is preparing to stop drinking altogether. Tom wants his remaining years to be healthy and wants to leave a better legacy for his children.
Passing Down the Problem
Mary had two grandparents die of alcohol-related problems, a brother lose a career due to alcohol, and a mother still drinking and having suspicious falls. After Mary sought advice from a counselor, she began to discuss the family's history with her children.
Over time, the kids had fun asking about Uncle Bill and Great-Grandma Ethel and learned that some family members seemed to have inherited susceptibilities while others hadn't. Mary's children became curious about their own individual heredity and realized that drinking is definitely not for everybody.
Dealing with Peer Pressure
Parents can prepare children to cope with peer pressure. A home environment where family members are allowed to express diverse opinions and talk things out allows kids to feel comfortable being unique, whereas children who are ridiculed or punished for differing will be ill-prepared to resist peer pressure.
It's important for parents to talk openly with their children about alcohol and to help their kids practice effective responses for refusing drinks. Role playing at the dinner table can be fun, and siblings are great at coming up with all kinds of challenging scenarios for each other. Studies have shown that when kids are able to rehearse their reactions to potential situations, they are more likely to respond assertively in real life.
Examine Your Own Drinking Habits
One important thing parents can do is be sure their own drinking habits are within healthy limits. Until the early '90s, most information, money and services for alcohol problems were focused on the severely dependent drinker. Now there are many user-friendly resources for the mild to moderate problem drinker that don't require a person to be labeled an alcoholic to get help.
In addition to AA and in-patient treatment centers, a variety of self-help groups support cutting down or stopping drinking, and more counselors have the skills to help people change their alcohol habits.
Parents concerned about underage drinking who want to promote strong self-esteem in their children, or change their own personal habits, can find support and information through the local public library, self-help groups, therapists, friends, and on the web.
Many on-line peer self-help groups support people's efforts to change their drinking patterns, while "expert advice" sites encourage parents to ask questions and chat with other parents who share their concerns about children and alcohol. Here are some additional resources:
- Recovery Options: The Complete Guide. Josephe Volpicelli, M.D., Ph.D., Univ. of PA, and Maia Szalavitz, John Wiley & Sons, NY:NY, 2000.
- Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente. Avon Books: NY, 1994.
- Moderation Management (MM)- moderation-oriented self-help program, emphasizing balanced lifestyle. Not for those with severe alcohol problems or those who medically require abstinence. Ph: 732-295-0949. http://www.moderation.org
- Abstinence-based self-help programs: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), 212-870-3400; Rational Recovery (RR), 800-303-2873; Alanon/Alateen, 888-4AL-ANON.
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