The latest statistics on kids and alcohol use are sobering. One in five high school students nationwide say they drank before they turned 13. Nearly four in 10 say they are current drinkers. And one in five say they consumed at least five alcoholic beverages in a row on at least one day in the 30 days before they completed the most recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, released this month. "To me, that's a serious problem," says Daniel Levy, a developmental pediatrician who sits on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on communications and media.
What can you do to prevent your kids from following in the footsteps of these high school freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors?
Talk about brain development. Explain that it extends to around age 25, so underage drinking can cause both short- and long-term consequences. "The very part of the brain that forms last is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-regulation - everything from paying attention to making good decisions," says Levy.
Set clear rules. It's OK to say, "As long as you're living in my house, I don't want you drinking," says Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco.
Stay calm. Focus on studies, not morals. "I try to use very neutral language," says Turner. "'This is what we know. This is why I'm concerned about it.'"
Bring up the law. Your kids can get into legal trouble for drinking. Indeed, earlier this month the 20-year-old daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Scott Willis, was arrested for violating an open-container law and charged with two misdemeanors. Feel free to say, "Right now it's illegal. If you're caught, it's going to be on your record. You don't want ot have this affect the course of your life,'" says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?
Raise safety issues. "I would share the short-term dangers," says Hindy. For example, alcohol increases the risk of acquaintance rape and automobile accidents.
Figure out if alcohol is masking other problems. Why do your kids feel they want to drink? Some kids do it because of social anxiety or to regulate their moods, says Hindy. Help your kids figure out healthier ways to feel better. "It's at this young age that we learn habits of self-comforting," says Hindy. "So many of the problems I see as a psychologist with adults have to do with maladaptive ways of comforting yourself." (Too much eating, drinking, or gambling is not a good idea.) Ask kids what other activities make them feel good, says Hindy. Shooting hoops? Playing guitar? If they learn to comfort themselves in healthy ways, they will be less likely to develop a long-term problem with alcohol abuse.
Meanwhile, if your child does get caught drinking, don't just obsess about where you went wrong. Parents tend to feel guilty and lament, "'How have I screwed up? Have I shortchanged my kids? I put too much energy into my career,'" says Hindy.
What should you do about your kids and alcohol? Instead of all the mea culpas, follow the steps above. And be a good role model, too. Skip the beer and sip some water (on the rocks).
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