September 12, 2013Q. My husband and I have two children, 9 and 12. We’re not sure how to talk to them about alcohol and other drugs, but we’re afraid these things are soon going to be part of their world. What should we do?”
A. Children notice everything. As they move into their teen years they notice more of everything and with a more discerning eye. They’re constantly adapting themselves to the world around them and evaluating the actions of others. Young people want to grow up fast, so they pay special attention to adults.
If children see that adult gatherings always include alcohol, it sends a message that will be received loud and clear. The message is: if I’m an adult interacting with other adults in a social setting, I should be drinking. Children are the only ones who aren’t allowed to drink. If I’m going to be one of the grown-ups, I need to drink.
When extended family and friends come over for a holiday celebration, an adult birthday or a special occasion, is alcohol always part of the program? If so, the point about adulthood equaling alcohol is being reinforced.
How about sending a richer and more nuanced message? Yes, adults may drink alcohol, but alcohol isn’t a requirement for adults to get together. Take some time to plan adult family activities that don’t include alcohol, where everyone is having fun together without drinking. This possibly strange behavior will be noted and if alcohol normally plays a big role in your family, the message will be puzzled over by your kids. That’s a good thing.
Be sure your children see the different ways you have to relax and take time for yourself. Work out, read a book, work on a project.
You won’t have the luxury of isolation because you live in a house with kids, but you can demonstrate the various ways that adults relax, without using substances.
If a problem does arise with substance abuse in your household, get some help. When you think about it, it’s the only sensible thing to do. If you had transmission problems with your car, you wouldn’t attempt to become a transmission specialist overnight. Why would you? You’d get professional help with the problem.
The brain of a young female will continue to develop until the age of 21 to 23. For males, brain development continues until the age of 22 to 24. The regular use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs can impact the developmental process in a negative way. It may not be realistic to expect that your children will abstain from all substances until they complete their developmental process, but they should be made aware of the dangers. It also gives a reasonable and scientific basis for firm boundaries and expectations in the household.
Your children will be exposed to alcohol and other drugs early in their teen years, if not earlier. Make sure you learn how to communicate with them before someone else does. And as always, actions speak louder than words.
Jay is a clinical interventionist, educator and author. His work has appeared on CNN, the Jane Pauley Show, PBS, Forbes Online and professional journals. He and his wife, Debra, have a private practice in Grosse Pointe and are the authors of “Love First, a Family’s Guide to Intervention.” They can be reached at lovefirst.net or (888) 220-4400. Jay will be one of the featured presenters at the Managing Life’s Launches “Cradle to College” presentation offered by The Family Center on Oct. 10.
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