Coloring, ice cream cones, monsters under the bed, and drinking? Though the first three sound like run of the mill subjects for a second grader, the topic of drinking and alcohol might be something you've never thought to chat about with younger kids. Is it really necessary, you wonder, to speak with your eight-year-old about the dangers of drinking?
If you're unsure of the answer, know that it's undoubtedly a yes. In a world where the average teen takes their first drink before age 13 (as was reported in a 1996 National Household Survey on drug abuse in American teens aged 12-17), talking to elementary-aged children about drinking and alcohol is not only a smart move, but a critical step in helping your kid say no to underage drinking. But how exactly should you tackle this tricky topic? If you find yourself tongue-tied, don't despair: get started with the seven tips from the list below, and learn to talk to your little ones about drinking and alcohol.
- Start early. Though you may feel strange speaking to a seven-year old about alcohol, know that starting early is a smart step in the long run. Sue Scheff, a parent advocate, author, and the founder of Parent's Universal Resources, Inc. advises, "Like with any sensitive and serious subject, as soon as a parent believes their child is mature enough to understand the topic (alcohol) is when they should start discussions." Not sure if your little one's ready? Consider this: if she's grasped the concept that medicine can help her when she's sick, she's probably ready for the idea that alcohol will harm her.
- Listen up. Giving your kid a chance to let you know what she's heard helps her feel like her thoughts are valued, and allows you to nip any misconceptions in the bud. Ask your child if she's ever seen a movie where people were drinking, or if she's learned anything from friends or their parents. Getting an idea of what she knows about alcohol already will help you guide the conversation, and give you insight into who her primary influences are.
- Tailor your talk. Don't assume that your little one understands the conversation about alcohol in the same way a teen or an adult would. If she sounds confused or unsure, make an effort to speak at her level. As a starting point, try discussing alcohol in the context of health habits she understands—such as, "You know how you took medicine to get better when you weren't feeling well? There are also other medicines, like alcohol, that can make you very sick if you drink them when you're too young." By linking alcohol abstention to concepts she knows, you'll make it easier for your kid to grasp the subject.
- Use Resources: To counter the flood of negative media messages about alcohol, give your kid a media outlet you trust. Scheff recommends Ask Listen Learn, a website created by the advocacy group Century Council that offers kid-friendly games designed to educate children about the dangers of alcohol. If you're looking for other outlets, try asking around: use your network of parent friends to seek out positive resources such as books, movies, or websites together.
- Set ground rules. Establish a family policy on alcohol that makes it easy for your child to know where you stand. Let her know that it's never acceptable for her to drink in the house or elsewhere, and that she never has to stay with anyone who makes her feel pressured to drink. Tell your kid that not all grown-ups know how to handle alcohol responsibly, and make it clear that she should call you if she ever suspects something's wrong. Advice like this can keep her from getting into a car with any adults may have had a bit too much to drink and are over the safe limit to drive.
- Be a role model. Since actions really can speak louder than words, talk to your spouse about the way you'd like to handle drinking in your house—and keep your policy consistent. If you'd like to model drinking responsibly, be sure to tell your kid that this is an activity reserved for Mom and Dad only. Additionally, take the opportunity to explain the ways in which you're careful about alcohol: staying off the road, drinking in moderation, and never becoming dependent on drinks are all great examples.
- Don't rely on school: Treat any alcohol awareness efforts made by your child's school as a bonus session (rather a replacement) for at-home chats. "Schools and teachers do what they are paid to do, and in most cases, especially with dedicated teachers and employees, will go above their duty and do more," Scheff explains. "However it is the parent's responsibility to continue to talk to their child about the risks and dangers of alcohol, as well as the peer pressure they may face in school and in their community." If you're not sure what your kid's hearing in the classroom about alcohol, make it a point to ask at the next parent teacher conference.
Since you can't always protect your kids from bad messages and confusion about drinking, take control by starting the conversation early. Using the tips above to chat about alcohol will help your elementary schooler make smart choices from the very beginning, and give her a firm foundation to build on as she grows into a responsible adult.