Tweens, Teens, Parents & Underage Drinking

#DidYouKnow that April is Alcohol Awareness Month?

I did.

But that’s partly because many many moons ago, I worked for The Century Council, which is a national non-profit funded by the distilled spirits industry. The Century Council’s mission is to fight underage drinking and drunk driving so clearly, April was always a busy month for me.

That was then – when I was in my mid-20s and planning a wedding and still faxing press releases to reporters.

So now today, in 2013, the way I approach Alcohol Awareness Month is quite different because we’re almost 11 years into the marriage, no one in their right mind would fax a press release (if you do, you’re doing it wrong) and now I have a 7 and 4-year-old.

One would think it’s too soon for me to be worrying about my kids and alcohol, right? But as I watched my adorable 7-year-old give me a dance performance, with her rake as her prop, to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” last night – and believe me – I loved every single minute of it – I think we all know the tween years come knocking so much faster than we’d like them too. And short on the heels of the tween years are the dreaded teen years. Not to mention, last year, in the first few months of Kindergarten, my daughter came home with this work sheet which still shocks me:

I’m thinking someone had to help her with some of these?

Really? Needles? Wine? Beer? She was five at the time people, FIVE.

Needless to say, now I walk upstairs and find notes like this taped to her door:

#Hilarious

Given the dramatic transformation in her in just a year, you better believe that when I was given the opportunity to join a phone call that The Century Council organized with Dr. Anthony Wolf, a child psychologist and author of I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up: What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens, and the best-selling, Get Out of My Life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the Mall? A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager, I jumped at the opportunity.

Dr. Wolf’s message, along with The Century Council’s theme for their Alcohol Awareness Month efforts, is to start conversations with your  kids and start them early. Clearly one could infer the Montgomery County School system also believes in the importance of starting conversations early – given Exhibit A that I posted above. And I absolutely believe in this too. Right now, my 7-year-old cherishes our “private talks” we have every night. It’s a time when her pesky little sister is already asleep and it’s just me and her, together, in her room, lights out, she’s ready for bed, and we can talk about anything. Sometimes she’s obviously reaching for something – for instance a recent question was “Do you think some day I will change my name?”

BUT – the point is – she knows that’s our time every night to cover anything under the sun and I’m probably over-thinking it but I hope it’s laying a foundation for her for when the time comes when she doesn’t want to share her stream of consciousness with me anymore. Which was one of Dr. Wolf’s points – start conversations with your kids and keep having them. Specifically, he noted with kids, teens in particular, parents need to recognize that we are having a conversation, a dialogue, not a lecture. He went on further to explain “the art of listening as a parent is a big deal because kids feel like their parents always jump in, so don’t criticize what they say or correct them.” This really resonated with me and I believe that for this sort of effective conversation to be remotely possible when they are teens, I need to create this environment now with my little ones.

Here’s a look at the other insights Dr. Wolf shared with us on our call last week. You can take these and apply them to most aspects of parenting, no matter if your kids are not quite at the age where you need to raise the issue of drinking directly with them yet.

  • Parents think they have little influence on their kids because kids, teen in particular, are non-responsive when you try to engage them OR you just get back talk from them. BUT it turns out it’s not nearly as bad as it seems because kids have this little problem:  If you’ve been a nice parent, kids still have the attachment; you are still in their head and your words can exert a steady, constant pressure on them.  To be in their heads: it’s good.
  • How do you talk to teens about underage drinking? First, you have to ask yourself initially where you stand on underage drinking. Many parents have ambivalence – they don’t like drinking and driving but they remember their own experiences as teens drinking.
  • The reality is that drinking puts kids in situations to make dangerous decisions:  taking risks, drugs, abusing prescription drugs. Drinking can exacerbate anger and depression, make kids more vulnerable in sexual experiences, drinking increases chance for pregnancy and STDs.
  • The more parents create a pattern of talking with kids as they are younger, the more chance parents have at conversations as they get older.

So, wondering about where and when to start these types of conversations? Dr. Wolf gave some excellent guidance:

  • In the car. Teens are better when they aren’t facing you. I loved this insight!  Another time is when they are watching tv or playing video games; don’t be put off by their lack of enthusiasm. Talking to teens is a skill because they have an attitude, noted Dr. Wolf. Parents need to be sure they don’t pick up on their attitude.
  • An excellent strategy to deploy is this: “I love you so much, I’m not put off by your rejecting attitude, I still love you anyway.” Dr. Wolf went on to say my favorite quote of the week, or possibly ever, “rise above their grumpiness” and don’t ever expect this reaction: “This is great, why don’t we do this more?” AH ha! I’m sure none of us expected that but the idea of rising above their grumpiness appeals endlessly to me. Can I get my kids to rise above my grumpiness on certain days?
  • Most of us need to start at the very beginning and frankly, this applies to any tough topic – How do you start the conversation? Dr. Wolfe said to just go for it, “I want to talk to you about alcohol” and plow ahead.
  • When you find yourself in a conversation, being genuine is a big deal – do not use the “mommy voice” but talk about an adult subject in an adult manner.  In fact, try not to get into a lecture, don’t try to win the argument, it’s a conversation – opening up an ongoing dialogue back and forth – the art of listening as a parent is a big deal, kids feel like their parents always jump in, don’t criticize what they say or correct them.
  • Be honest; tell them what you worry about, ask them what they think are the risks of drinking, why kids their age drink, are there kids you know who drink – what they know about what their friends doing.
  • How much of your life should you bring in? The answer is: Do what you are comfortable with, they might ask you questions you aren’t comfortable answering….you can tell them there are some things you won’t talk about.
  • A main fear kids have is about saying “no”; they worry they will push their friends away. Dr. Wolf noted that parents have to recognize this with kids. In fact, he explained that kids will rearrange who they hang out with because drinking can be a turning point for who they hang out with in their teenage years. Kids know that excuses to their friends like “I haven’t been feeling well” doesn’t hold up over time as a reason why they aren’t drinking. Kids need to learn to just say “No, i don’t want too” from the beginning.

aly-parents-splash-aIf you’d like more information about how to talk to your kids about alcohol, check out The Century Council’s web site Ask Listen Learn. This site is an excellent resource for middle school aged kids and their parents, encouraging everyone to say “Yes” to a healthy lifestyle.  Interesting to note for parents of girls, there is a section about how alcohol affects girls differently. As a parent of only girls  it’s impossible for me not to point it out. Also, the Alcohol Awareness Month designated web page has tremendous resources and interactive videos for parents and teens alike.

For anyone interested in more information, The Century Council is hosting a twitter party full of tips and information on  how to #TalkEarly with kids about underage drinking tomorrow, April 17, at 1 p.m. ET.  (Make sure to follow #TalkEarly, @AskListenLearn@centurycouncil, and @TheMotherhood for all the twitter party info).

One Response to Tweens, Teens, Parents & Underage Drinking
  1. Julie
    April 16, 2013 | 12:25 pm

    Thanks Monica – great post!

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