Throwing back a beer with pals may be the furthest thing from your tween's mind, but if you haven't yet opened the lines of communication about alcohol, consider this: a study on age at onset of alcohol use and abuse published in the 1997 Journal of Substance Abuse found that kids who use alcohol prior to age 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on it than those who wait until they're 21. And if you think your kid won't have access to drinks, think again: the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that two in every five 8th graders have tried alcohol (according to a 2005 Monitoring the Future study).
Given the statistics above, discussing the dangers of drinking with your middle-schooler isn't just a good idea, but a necessity. But how, exactly, do you go about tackling such a sticky subject, especially when you've got a moody twelve-year-old whose temperament seems to change by the minute? Before going it alone, read through the seven tips below for advice on how to successfully navigate the discussion with your tween about alcohol and drinking:
- Boost self-confidence. Begin the conversation by telling your middle-schooler that you're proud of her and the person she's becoming. Identify specific instances where she was mature (think, doing the dishes without being asked, or watching a younger sibling), and tell her how much you admire that behavior. By working to raise her self-esteem, you make your tween less likely to turn to alcohol as a way to fit in or feel better about herself. Additionally, knowing you respect her makes her respect you in turn, and take your words seriously.
- Talk often. It can take a lot of repetition before your message about your tween doing her own laundry sinks in—and an anti-alcohol message is no different. Work towards creating an ongoing dialogue with your tween about drinking, rather than a one-time conversation, and speak "as frequently as you have an opportunity," recommends Sue Scheff, a parent advocate, author, and founder of Parent's Universal Resource Experts, Inc. "If there is a reason for it—if there is a conversation about it, expand on it—don't run from it." It may feel awkward at first, but have patience: the more you chat freely, the less forced it will feel.
- Use a movie. Since getting a middle schooler to open up can be tricky, try starting the conversation by bringing up a book or movie she's familiar with. Ask about how your child thinks the characters onscreen handle themselves while drinking, such as during the party scenes in Mean Girls. Keeping the conversation about popular culture makes your tween feel less vulnerable, and more willing to openly share her opinions and thoughts.
- Share your story. If you or a family member has ever battled alcohol abuse or addiction, you may have struggled with whether or not to tell your tween. According to Scheff, the best approach is typically an honest one, especially if you're dealing with a tween who's thinking about trying alcohol for the first time. She explains, "If you have a family member that has battled with addiction, alcoholism or similar issues, there is nothing like firsthand experiences (especially those people that are related to them) to help them understand how harmful this disease can be and in some cases, deadly."
- Act it out. Role-play with your kid to act out how she can respond to real-world situations where she might be offered alcohol. If you're not sure where to start, you can again try referring to scenes from a well-known movie, or have your tween be the director and let her stage the scenarios. Regardless of which situations you choose, make it a point to teach several different ways to say no to drinking. Popular ways to say no include, "I'd rather have a soda," "Can't, I've got a test/game tomorrow," "My parents would kill me!" or plain old, "No thanks."
- Find role models. Direct your tween towards positive role models to counter-act any peer pressure she feels to fit in by drinking. Find an adult in a field that interests your kid (think sports, music, or drama) who has spoken out against teen drinking or alcohol abuse. Recently, for example, superstar speed skater Apolo Ohno partnered with The Century Council, a leading activist group against underage drinking, to spread the word on the dangers of teen drinking and to promote a healthy lifestyle.
- Offer resources. Give your tween an outlet where she can go for answers to questions that she feels uncomfortable asking you or other adults. Since most thirteen-year-olds practically live online, it's a good idea to find a few websites that offer accurate information in a format you're comfortable with. For tweens, Scheff recommends The Cool Spot, an informative website that discusses the dangers of alcohol and ways to beat peer pressure.
Though starting the conversation can be hard, the tips above will make it easier to begin (and continue) discussions about alcohol and drinking with your tween. Chatting often with the above suggestions in mind will help you give your middle-schooler the knowledge, practice, and confidence she needs to rise above peer pressure and say no to underage drinking.