Alcohol and kids. It's a combination that frightens every parent. Your natural instinct is to protect your children from life's dangers and potential risks. But you can't always be there when your kids are faced with tough decisions—and saying no to alcohol is one of the toughest decisions kids have to make. The pressure to drink can be enormous. So how can you be sure your child will make the wise, safe and godly choice?
As difficult as it is for parents to imagine a child taking a drink, it's essential that we understand how real a problem alcohol is among young people, even young Christians. Surprisingly, statistics show that many Christian kids experiment with alcohol in much the same way as their non-Christian peers. A survey conducted by Josh McDowell Ministries found that more than 12 percent of churchgoing kids ages 11-19 admitted to being drunk at least once.
Libby, a mother of preteens who was raised in a churchgoing home, recalls drinking heavily when she was in high school and college.
"I'm not really sure why I did. All of the kids were doing it, even the church group," she remembers. "My parents never said anything; I don't think they realized I was drinking."
Libby says her parents didn't discuss alcohol with her. "I wish they had. I would at least have had a value or a moral context placed on drinking. Instead, I knew drinking at my age was against the law, but I never felt guilty about it. I look back and feel such remorse about the danger I put myself and others in by driving and drinking."
Libby's story is not unique, except that today's kids aren't waiting until high school to start drinking. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a study that revealed some startling statistics: One out of four fourth graders has already experienced alcohol intoxication. And the chance for addiction greatly increases when experimentation with alcohol starts prior to adolescence.
Alcohol remains the drug of choice among all teenagers, and the drug most associated with risky behavior—drunk driving, teen pregnancy, suicide and violence.
Despite the frightening statistics, parents are not powerless to keep their kids away from alcohol. In fact, early parental intervention is one of the key factors in helping kids resist the temptation to drink. That means taking the time to talk to your children early and often about the risks of drinking. The more your children know about this potent drug, the better.
Not My Child
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to assume their children will never use drugs or alcohol. According to a report from the Adult Adolescent Substance Program (AASP), parents "ignore all the warning signs and then are shocked when they receive a phone call from the school, police or another parent."
Child and adolescent therapist Beth Quinn warns parents to watch for emotional and physical changes, including mood swings, irrational behavior, clumsiness, laziness, depression or memory loss. Also pay attention to social clues, such as dropping old friends to hang out with a new crowd.
If you suspect your child is drinking, don't excuse or ignore this behavior. It's never wrong for a parent to ask: "Have you been drinking? Do your friends drink? Was there alcohol at the party?" Even if the answers are quick denials, you have at least notified your child that you're watching.
While it might be hard to accept the discovery that your child is drinking, it's essential that you take immediate steps to end his or her alcohol use. When kids start to use "gateway drugs" (alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana) on a regular basis, the odds increase dramatically that they'll begin using more dangerous drugs like cocaine, heroin or LSD. Don't be afraid to take a hard line by monitoring your child's friends and activities. But more important, look beyond the behavior to what might be causing it. Alcohol abuse is a symptom of a problem that goes deeper: fear of failure socially or academically, grief over a recent loss, lack of confidence. Take the real problem seriously and get help through a church youth group leader or a Christian counselor who specializes in youth issues.
The Role Model
If we want our kids to resist the lure of alcohol, we need to give them compelling reasons to withstand the peer pressure they face. We can start with the way we deal with the stresses we face. Parents are the most powerful influences on a child's ability to deal with stress, says Quinn. We all experience stress—parents and children alike—but how do you respond to it? If we show our children positive ways to handle stress that really work, they'll be less likely to reach for a substance to relieve daily pressures.
No matter what your personal stand on drinking might be, it's crucial that you take a stand on underage drinking and be sure your children understand what motivates your convictions. For children and teens, drinking is wrong, first and foremost, because it's illegal. But it's also an addictive drug that can alter a drinker's ability to act responsibly.
Rick West was vice-president of his fraternity when he was in college. Even though alcohol flowed freely at his frat house, Rick never touched a drop of it. Before he left home for college, Rick had been well-prepared to cope with frat life and use his presence in a fraternity to influence others.
"My youth pastor pointed me in the right direction at the right time," West says. "He believed I could set an example in my environment by choosing not to drink. He told me this was my chance to share my Christianity. He was right. Both in college and now in the business world, I've had so many chances to explain my faith. Not drinking gives me that chance, because others want to know why."
Like West's youth pastor, parents need to stress the positive side of not drinking as well as the dangers of drinking. Such an approach helps kids see that their choices do more than keep them out of trouble. They can impact the lives of others in tremendous ways.
What Can You Say?
As difficult as it can be to talk to your children about alcohol, it's crucial that you do. Because alcohol use is so pervasive, your child might innocently bring up the subject long before you do. When your 8-year-old asks why that man at the football game is so noisy, or your teenager asks why Grandpa drinks a beer every night, a door has opened that you can easily step through.
My 15-year-old told me recently that she didn't see what was wrong with having alcohol at a teen party. I realized I could shut down this conversation for good if I blasted her with grim statistics. Instead I asked her: "Well, what's so good about it?"
Because I didn't attack her position, we were able to have a non-threatening conversation about alcohol. I shared with her that alcoholism runs in both sides of our families so she's at a higher risk for problem drinking than other kids might be. I asked her to consider how her non-Christian friends would view her if they saw her drinking. She already knows her dad and I oppose any type of drinking by teenagers, but I wanted her to have firm convictions on this issue by thinking it out for herself.
Kids need to know about the dangers of alcohol abuse, but they tune us out when they hear too many horror stories. In fact, negative messages from parents regarding alcohol tend to encourage rebellion. A recent study conducted in Australia found that recipients of negative messages about alcohol were more likely to binge drink than those who received positive messages.
So try one of these positive, empowering messages:
- The best way to solve a problem is by facing it, not escaping it.
- Feeling shy and uncertain is part of growing up. What you're feeling is normal.
- You feel better when you take good care of yourself, and you look better, too.
- Being in control is cool. Drunk or stoned people embarrass themselves.
- Kids who say "no" to tobacco, alcohol or marijuana in junior high school will be better adjusted and will cope with problems better than kids who rely on substances.
By teaching your children that they exercise power over alcohol, rather than the other way around, you can curb the potential for future abuse. Barbara Kalkman encourages her children to learn by observation. "I always ask my kids if they've seen anyone drunk and what they have noticed about how the substance changed them," she says. "Notice how foolish people look when they're drunk, how bad they smell, how unwise it is to give up control of some of your faculties. I appeal to their desire to be in control of their own destiny and body by helping them see that they give that up when they decide to drink, smoke, do drugs. I remind them of Romans 8:9, 'You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit,' and urge them to be sure the only thing in control of their life is the Holy Spirit."
The Genetic Factor
If alcoholism is part of your family background, it's even more essential that you be open and honest with your children about the risks of drinking. Research is leading to the identification of a genetic link that causes some people to rapidly escalate into addictive behaviors, while others do not.
"Some people are born with a lessened ability to tolerate alcohol," says Beth Quinn. "Researchers haven't found the gene yet, but they know [the addictive tendency] runs in families."
Quinn speaks from the heart. Her father and her sister are recovering alcoholics. Because of her family history, she chooses not to drink.
We all know people with a family history of alcoholism; some studies place its frequency as high as one out of every three families. If alcohol, drug or smoking addictions run in your background, you have to watch out, says Quinn. And so do your kids.
"Be afraid of it," she says, with passion. "Treat it with caution, like a poison."
The Best Prevention
There is plenty of bad news about children and alcohol, but there's some good news, too. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that strong, supportive ties between parents and teens help protect kids against a variety of risky behaviors. By becoming informed about alcohol-related issues and talking to your child, you can reduce the chance that she will drink.
My husband, Steve, grew up in a family that abstained from alcohol and he simply never developed a taste for it. Strongly influenced by his parents' modeling, the only alcohol he's ever had was a sip of champagne at our wedding toast.
Steve's example has had a major impact on our children. Our 17-year-old daughter says her dad's abstinence has shown her that she doesn't need to drink to have a good time with her friends. And that's music to our ears.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is a bestselling author of Amish fiction and non-fiction, the host of a weekly radio program called Amish Wisdom and a columnist for Christian Post. Follow her on Twitter @suzannewfisher.
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