When I got arrested for driving far over the limit after a night out for a friend's birthday, which I'd done more times than I could count, I was as surprised as anyone. I thought I was invincible — not because I was cocky, but because I grew up in a fundamental Christian culture that emphasized attaining Christ-like perfection. I was truly convinced that if I acted perfect, I was perfect. If I kept it all together and convinced even myself I wasn't doing anything wrong, then I'd never get caught.
I was very wrong. I was arrested, lost my license and spent years paying for my mistake. Looking back now, as an adult who has ceased to drink and drive and has become almost fanatic about making sure others do the same, I know how lucky I was. A close friend of mine was arrested for a DUI after a drunk driver died in an accident, even though the accident was not her fault. She was over the limit, she made a careless mistake that led to a worst-case scenario and she could have easily been me.
By the time I got my hands on alcohol, it was already too late. Drinking was completely forbidden in my house growing up, as you would expect from any strict Christian parents. So were smoking, drugs, premarital sex, cussing, secular TV and thinking impure thoughts. We already know how the story goes — most kids rebel and go crazy because they've been kept on a short leash. I personally liked to play the good girl role and fell down the slippery slope of drinking and driving because I really didn't know what I was doing.
Now that I'm a parent and have two kids of my own, I see how easily this mistake could have been avoided. My parents could have just talked to me and answered my questions instead of making me feel condemned. Maybe they could have had drinks socially in front of me so I could see drinking wasn't a mortal sin and was something that could be enjoyed responsibly and in moderation.
Growing up, I had truly never heard words like "BAC" or "over the limit." I was never told not to drink and drive. I was told never to touch a drop of alcohol because it was wrong — a totally reasonable request for an experimental teenager. When I started going out with friends in my 20s, I felt like a child who had been given the car keys. Drinking and driving felt wild and wrong, but no one was telling me not to do it. I was a child of the D.A.R.E. generation and I'm sure I heard a few anti-drinking messages in school, but none of it sunk in since alcohol didn't exist at my house.
I felt like I was exempt. None of the drinking rules applied to me because we never talked about them at home.
Every parent feels uncomfortable at the thought of his or her child getting to an age where they want to try adult things. But pretending like these risks don't exist is exactly what is putting our teens at risk — and creating serious problems later in life. The only way to address teen and even preteen drinking is by talking about it openly at home and encouraging moderation, says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent and expert co-star of Sex Box on WE tv.
"The best approach for parents to take with their teens about alcohol and moderation is open, honest, straight communication," Walfish says. "Avoidance can lead to problems. Knowledge is being prepared. Talk with your teens about the normalcy of trying things (experimentation) and encourage kids to be true to their own voice when faced with peer pressure. Help them think ahead and create a plan that ensures no drinking and driving."
Teaching moderation isn't a one-time thing — it's a constant, open dialogue that requires much more than talking. Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist and leading expert on teens and families, recommends a two-prong approach: First, and the most important of all, model moderate drinking in your own life. "This is the best teacher of all," says Mayer.
Second, keep your eyes open and use real-life situations as teaching moments as you would do in any other aspect of your parenting. Mayer shares an example of how you could start a conversation on the way home from a family get-together at the beach: "'Uncle Jim had way too much to drink on the beach this afternoon. I hate when he makes a fool of himself.' Instead of our usual: 'Wasn't Uncle Jim funny today?' And the kids all know it was because he was drunk. See what you are reinforcing?"
Here's the thing: Moderation doesn't teach itself. I promised myself even before I became a parent that I wouldn't set my kids up for failure like my parents did. What no one told me, and what I learned through making my biggest life mistake (followed by 24 hours of alcohol class), is that alcohol isn't evil. It's the irresponsible use of alcohol that's the problem.
When my kids get to that age in a few years when they're asking about alcohol, I'm not going to clam up and pretend it doesn't exist. I'm going to teach them exactly what happens to your body when you drink and how to avoid the many dangerous situations that alcohol can create. I'm going to explain to them that alcohol is just one of the many wonderful adult things that can be enjoyed moderately in life and I'm going to empower them to make their own healthy choices. And if they're curious and want to have a small glass of wine at the dinner table, I'm going to let them.
This isn't about providing teenagers with a steady supply of alcohol. This is about teaching teenagers on the cusp of adulthood how to use alcohol responsibly — something I never learned at home. Right now, I'm spending every day potty training a 3-year-old. It's not one of my favorite parts of parenting, but it has to be done. When he's a teenager, I'm going to spend just as much time training him how to be responsible with alcohol. It's a basic life skill.
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