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Are you sending mixed messages about alcohol?

Not one parent among us is perfect. We all have quirks and downfalls — and areas in which we are tying to communicate expected behaviors even while not consistently leading by example. One of those areas is often alcohol. With teen drinking and alcoholism a continuing national concern, you want to make sure you aren’t sending a mixed message, even if your children are still toddlers.


It’s too simplistic to say that a “mixed message” about alcohol is telling your kids not to drink while sipping a martini. It’s a set of behaviors you demonstrate and talk about. It’s being honest about why you drink or don’t drink without being overly dogmatic about your choice. It is, as much as possible, having a healthy relationship with alcohol and communicating that relationship with your child. You want that communication to include:

  • Appropriate enjoyment of alcohol but not dependence on it.
  • Recognition of right and wrong times to use alcohol.
  • Respect for alcohol’s altering effects and risks.

The appeal of the taboo

When dealing with toddlers, many of us have had the experience of telling a child “no” about something — and as a result that something is even more enticing to the toddler. Whether it’s candy or a specific toy, sometimes that ultra-hard line is a double-edged sword: the taboo item is even more in demand than it was before.

A similar scenario can develop with teenagers and alcohol, and it’s a fine line to walk between education, leading by example, and restriction. Soon enough, those teenagers will be 21 and legally allowed to use alcohol — and you don’t want them to go off the deep end indulging in this new privilege. The repercussions of binge alcohol consumption are far more serious than bingeing on chocolate!

In light of this, and as a way to remove some taboo, some parents choose to allow their children tastes of alcohol in what they consider “safe” settings. This approach is controversial at best. You’re unlikely to find a child development expert to condone letting your eight year old sip from you chardonnay. Better to be firm about no alcohol consumption until 21 and model appropriate behaviors.

Use your resources

In your effort not to send mixed messages to your kids about alcohol and drinking, gather all the resources you can. Among them:

  • Learn about the substance education curriculum used in local schools. It likely has complementary parent information you can use to talk with your child in a way that balances what they do — or will, eventually — learn in school.
  • Talk with your child’s pediatrician for guidance — and to develop a partnership for talking to your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends physicians screen patients as young as 6th grade for alcohol use. During that questioning, the pediatrician has an opening to discuss this very important issue and reinforce what you are teaching at home.
  • Ask your religious leaders about any faith-based awareness education that might be available to your child, now or in the future. Many religious organizations offer programs for adolescents that include discussion of alcohol and healthy choices.

There is no one way not to send mixed messages about alcohol to kids: each kid is different and each family is different. But a thoughtful, researched, long-term approach (starting early!) can help stack the odds that your child won’t become a teen drinking statistic.

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