Age 9, just as kids are on the cusp of puberty and middle school, is the right time to start learning about the dangers of alcohol, according to a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The group recommends that parents start those discussions at a young age because nearly a quarter will have had more than a few sips of beer, wine or liquor by eighth grade. By high school, two out of every three students will have done the same.
Of course, it doesn't stop there. According to the report, one in nine of those middle schoolers will have reported being drunk at least once in their life. That number rises to half of all twelfth graders.
Age 9 is the time to start those discussions about the dangers of alcohol use because kids hopefully haven't had their first sip yet. And, according to the report, 80 percent of teens say their parents are the biggest influence whether they drink or not. Read more about the study on the academy's website.
This is not an unfamiliar topic to Go Ask Mom readers. I covered it last year at the launch of the statewide Talk It Out NC campaign, which educates parents on the dangers of alcohol and provides them tools to talk about it with their kids. The campaign launched its second phase in August with another series of incredibly direct ads that hammer home the point of the serious consequences if you don't have these conversations with your kids.
On the heels of the new public service campaign, which appear here on Go Ask Mom, and the academy's report and recommendations, I checked in with Deborah Hendren, a substance abuse prevention manager at Poe Center for Health Education in Raleigh.
Hendren works with both kids and parents on subjects such as alcohol and drug use. I checked in with Hendren, who also is a mom of two, to get some tips on how to tackle the subject with your kids. Hendren tells me that one big conversation with your child at age 9 isn't going to get the job done.
Here's what she recommendations:
Don't save up for that big talk
Small conversations sprinkled throughout a childhood, not one big one, will have more impact on a child, Hendren said. In fact, she started broaching the subject with her oldest daughter a couple of years ago when she was a preschooler.
"She’d been exposed through some extended family to alcohol and substance abuse and the moment had to be taken," Hendren said.
Hendren said seize the moment, whether it's a family issue or a news story; a scene in a movie or on TV; or a song on the radio.
"If they overhear something, you have to take that moment and answer the question," Hendren said. "It doesn't have to be an enormous talk, just addressing what it is. That they made a really unhealthy choice for their body."
Bring up legal and medical ramifications ... and family history
Hendren said now is not the time to sweep any family history of substance abuse under the rug. Hendren started the conversation about substance abuse with her preschooler when Hendren's cousin died from a heroin overdose. Her daughter was wondering where her loved one was. Substance abuse, Hendren said and studies show, is linked to family history and genetics.
"Make sure you give them information, as hard as it can be, about the family history," she said. "If anybody in the family has any level of addiction issues, just be honest about that and straightforward. Use that experience, no matter how it turned out."
The Talk It Out NC campaign lists the medical and legal issues that can crop up when kids drink. For instance, more teens die from alcohol use than all other illegal drugs combined, the site says. And the legal problems also extend to parents. According to Talk It Out, in Transylvania County, a mother was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after her son’s friend died of alcohol poisoning in her basement.
Practice what you preach
Hendren said it's fine to have a drink in front of your kids. If they wonder why it's OK for you, Hendren says just remind them that you're an adult, who is making safe decisions.
"I'm over 21 years old. I am not driving. I'm not putting myself or anybody at risk as it relates to motor vehicles. And I would probably also say, 'This is a personal choice that Mommy or Daddy gets to make at this point,'" she said.
Then, do as you say.
"You can’t go out to dinner and drive home and they see you drinking and driving," she said. "Make the right decisions - not over drinking, not drinking and driving."
Everybody isn't doing it
To your child, it might seem like everybody is drinking. But they aren't, Hendren said. The average age for kids in North Carolina to start drinking is 14, but that doesn't mean everybody is doing it. A lot of kids talk a big talk.
"Although it might seem that way, when we really look at information and data, most children their age are not drinking," she said. "We try to lay down that it’s OK to not drink. We really try to give the parents those skills to have those conversations. Kids are going to hear it."
Here's something to remember: Kids are 50 percent less likely to use alcohol and take drugs if parents have ongoing conversation with their kids.
Sadly, 98 percent of parents say they have talked with their children about drugs, but 27 percent of teens say they're learning a lot about the risk of drugs at home, according to DrugFree.org.
So keep having those conversations.
Don't try it at home
To some parents, home might seem like a safe place for their kids to have a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Don't do it, Hendren said.
"It’s very hard for that teen brain to decipher it’s OK to have a little bit of alcohol now and I’m going to this giant party and it's not OK," she said. "It needs to be very clear that it’s not OK. It’s not acceptable within our family and society."
And it's also illegal in North Carolina, Hendren said, for parents to offer alcohol to kids.
"It's truly harming," she said. "It's harming a developing brain."
Set limits, make consequences clear
As part of this ongoing conversations with your child, make sure they understand the expectations and consequences if they do choose to drink.
"Make it clear that they do not drink and what the consequences will be," she said. Take away that level of freedom that allowed them to go out and experiment.
"They're going to have to earn back your trust," she said.
Hendren does recommend that parents let their children know that they will pick them up from a party or friend's house if they've been drinking to safely drive them home.
"No matter how angry or upset or devastated you are, you basically make the agreement with them and with yourself that you will have the conversation in the morning," she said. But once they are awake, it's time to lay down the law and take away those privileges.
"A trust has been broken," she said.
There are plenty of people that will give your kids bad information. You want them to come to you when they have questions. The best way to ensure that is to keep that bridge constantly open, Hendren said.
"Don't judge it," she said. "Keep it honest and open." And friendly. A lot of finger wagging isn't going to get you far with teens.
"It truly is a disease," she said. "It basically hijacks your brain and hijacks your life. ... There’s a lot of fighting against it, but the prescription is fairly straightforward. Never ever give your child alcohol. It’s never OK at your home. It’s illegal. There’s a lot of serious ramifications with that."
The Poe Center offers a host of programs for kids and adults that focus on a variety of health topics, including substance abuse.
Hendren also recommends some other online sources for more information. They are: