A Parent's Guide to Kids and Alcohol
July 12, 2004, KidsHealth.org

"Not my kid. He'd never drink." If that's what you're thinking, you might be in for a surprise. Children see drinking around them all the time, and it's not unusual for them to experiment with alcohol themselves. The question is, what can parents do about it?

"It's very commonplace for kids to have a drink," says Mandell Much, PhD. "Experimental use is very popular, especially with adolescents."

Although experimentation with alcohol may be common among kids, it's not safe or legal. Read on to find out how to tell if your child is drinking and what you can do about it.

Kids and Alcohol Don't Mix
Alcohol interferes with our perception of reality and our ability to make good decisions. This is problematic for adults, and even worse for adolescents and children who have less problem-solving and decision-making experience.

According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, the short-term effects of drinking include:
o distorted vision, hearing, and coordination
o altered perceptions and emotions
o impaired judgment
o bad breath
o hangovers

The long-term effects include:
o cirrhosis and cancer of the liver
o loss of appetite
o serious vitamin deficiencies
o stomach ailments
o heart and central nervous system damage
o memory loss
o an increased risk of impotence

The possibility of overdosing on alcohol is significant, says Paco Cummings, MHS, CCDC, CCS, an addictions specialist. Alcohol first sedates the mind, he explains, and then attacks the vital functions. Even withdrawing from alcohol use can be deadly. "The actual withdrawal from alcohol is more dangerous than the withdrawal from heroin," Cummings says.

The short-term effects of alcohol abuse can also lead to homicides, suicides, and serious injuries. Over 38% of drownings, for example, are alcohol- related. Drinking also lowers inhibitions, which can lead teens to practice risky behaviors. Some risky behaviors, such as practicing unsafe sex, increase the chance of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Other risky behaviors practiced while drinking, such as drunk driving or drug use, put teens at risk for immediate and possibly deadly consequences.

Recognizing the Signs
Despite your efforts, your child may still use - and abuse - alcohol. How can you tell? The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) offers these warning signs:
o the odor of alcohol
o sudden change in mood or attitude
o change in attendance or performance at school
o loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities
o discipline problems at school
o withdrawal from family and friends
o secrecy
o association with a new group of friends and reluctance to introduce them to you

Any of the above signs could indicate a problem with alcohol (but doesn't necessarily indicate a problem with alcohol).

Obviously, being caught possessing alcohol or being under the influence of alcohol is a "glaring red flags," Dr. Much says. Further, alcohol disappearing from your home may indicate that your child is involved with drinking.

Some warning signs may indicate problems other than drinking, such as depression, developmental difficulties, eating disorders, or adolescent adjustment problems. It is important not to jump to conclusions based on only one or two signs.

Adolescence is a time of change - physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. This can lead to erratic behavior and mood changes as children try to cope with the changes of adolescence.

"The rule of thumb," Cummings says, "is whether there's a 'cluster of behavior' - changes in friends, behavior, dress, attitude, mood, sleep patterns, grades, interests, and so on. If you see a number of changes, certainly look for all explanations by talking to and questioning your kids, but don't overlook substance abuse as a possibility."

What if I Think My Child Is Drinking?
According to Dr. Much, by the time your child is 12 years old, he should be aware of issues such as why people drink, the risks of alcohol use (especially for children and teens), and how to handle situations where his friends or classmates may pressure him to drink. It's essential that parents begin communicating with children about alcohol at an early age and continue this dialogue throughout adolescence.

"Even if alcohol use is not part of your family's life," Dr. Much says, "somewhere in your child's circle he is going to have the opportunity to drink. You should work with him to provide strategies on how to avoid these situations or extricate himself from them once he's already in them."

For children between the ages of 4 and 7, Cummings recommends calmly explaining the reasons why it's dangerous to drink. "Be well-versed in the kinds of pressure that kids are faced with today so that you can counter that with real information."

For children between the ages of 8 and 11, continue to explain the risks of alcohol use, but also tie your discussions to real events discussed in newspaper articles or television shows. "If you see a story about someone suffering the consequences of drinking, use that as an opportunity to talk about the dangers," Cummings suggests.

For adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, Cummings advocates a zero tolerance approach. In fact, parents may want to stop drinking until the kids are grown and out of the house. Children need positive role models more than ever in this tumultuous period of development.

Dr. Much adds that no matter how old your child, if you suspect that he's drinking, it's time to sit down and talk. "Try to get some honest information from your child," he says. "Was it just one incident or is it frequent?" This may lead to a frank discussion between you and your child where you have the opportunity to set ground rules concerning alcohol use in your family. If you're not comfortable discussing the subject, there are a number of resources available that can help get you started. You may also want to consult an addictions counselor, Dr. Much says, even if only for advice or guidance.

Tips for Parents
Some parents may have a tendency to think that once their children reach adolescence, parenting is no longer needed. "Not true," Dr. Much asserts. "The world is more complex today. There are more challenges, more vulnerabilities, and more predatory behaviors toward children." Much emphasizes the importance of conveying to your children that you are there to support and protect them through adolescence into adulthood.

Here are some other tips you may want to try:
o Keep tabs on where your child goes.
o Talk to the parents of your child's friends.
o Always make sure you have a phone number where you can reach your child.
o Have your child check in regularly when he's away from home.
o Don't allow your child to spend an extended length of time away from o you without a phone call or stopping at home.

For teens, especially those old enough to drive, David Ebaugh, MA, CPC, CCDC, a substance abuse counselor, suggests negotiating and signing a behavioral contract with your child. This contract should spell out expected behaviors and state the consequences if your teen drives under the influence. "Follow through and take the keys away, if necessary," Ebaugh says. "Negotiating a behavioral agreement is one of the best options parents have to counteract negative peer pressure."

Ebaugh recommends always being a good role model. Make a deal with your teen that says that you and the rest of your family also agree never to drink and drive. You should also encourage responsible behaviors, Ebaugh says, such as planning for a designated driver, or calling an adult for help rather than driving under the influence.

Even if your child isn't driving yet, Cummings also advocates the use of behavioral contracts. Keep the dialogue open and keep the expectations reasonable. Tying responsible actions to freedoms such as a later curfew or a driver's license acts as a powerful motivator. Teach your child that freedom only comes with responsibility - a lesson that should last a lifetime.