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Talking to kids about alcohol: It’s hard, but worth it.

by Meagan Francis on August 27, 2013

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I grew up in a drinking family that didn’t talk about alcohol.

For my mother, drinking was a secret, shameful thing, and sadly, she eventually died from complications of alcoholism at only 55. For my dad, it was out in the open, and much more moderate: a glass or two of scotch and water in the evenings, except at family parties, when the spirits would flow more freely and we kids would have the fun of watching our aunts and uncles and parents engage in lively – and often silly – discussions.

But while alcohol was a part of our lives, it was never directly discussed. Even when it became clear that my mom Had Problems as I was approaching my teen years, I don’t remember anyone sitting me down and saying “Here is the way alcohol affects your body and brain. Here is the way it’s affecting your mom. Here is why you shouldn’t drink until you’re an adult, and even then, why you should be cautious and mindful of how alcohol is affecting you.”

I don’t blame my parents for their lack of communication. They were products of a different generation in which things like alcohol use and abuse weren’t so openly discussed. And to be clear, I did know one thing for sure: I wasn’t allowed to drink. I just didn’t know why.

So, as teenagers have been known to do, I eventually attended a party at which a disgusting grape-flavored drink was passing from hand to hand, and I nervously tried it. When nothing horrible happened to me at that party, I decided to indulge a little more at the next. And so kicked off a year or so of Extremely Poor Decisions.

Not only did I make bad choices before, during and after drinking parties, but I went on bad information. I had no idea what kind of affects I could expect from drinking a certain amount, or at what point drinking could become dangerous. I didn’t realize the affects that copious amounts of booze could have on a developing brain.

I even bought into myths and outright lies. To whomever told me: “Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”? Not necessarily, dude. I remember an older boy telling my friends and I that, if you drink water at the same time as drinking alcohol, your blood will dilute and you’ll get a worse hangover. And we believed him.

But while I consider myself a lot more open about most things than my parents were, it’s funny how easy it is to unconsciously slip into the habits and patterns you were raised with. My kids have witnessed plenty of weekends when our house fills with our large family and my brothers and sister and I laugh ourselves to tears over drinks. They’ve also witnessed much more reserved alcohol use: me sipping a glass of wine as I make dinner. But I admit it: while they are well aware that they’re not allowed to drink alcohol, I haven’t done nearly a good enough job explaining why.

It’s hard to talk about drinking with kids. We get stuck in the mistakes we made and aren’t sure how to tell our kids not to do the exact same things we did. We don’t want to demonize something that we now (legally) enjoy, we don’t want to feel like hypocrites, and it can feel a little uncomfortable to examine whether we’re setting a good example ourselves. We might also wonder whether our kids would listen to a thing we have to say on the subject, anyway.

Well, I’ve learned, they do.

Last month I was invited to participate in #TalkEarly, sponsored by The Century Council, an organization of distillers that have come together to fight underage drinking and drunk driving. #TalkEarly is a program encouraging parents to do talk to kids about alcohol use, starting at a young age.

As part of the program, I met with a group of bloggers at The Century Council’s headquarters outside of Washington, DC. And we talked. About the way our own teenage alcohol experiences affected the way we discuss drinking with our kids, about the way we see “mommy drinking” portrayed on the Internet, about how hard it is to talk about Big Topics with little kids.

One of the highlights of the day was a presentation from Tony Wolf, Ph.D, a child psychologist and parenting author. He explained to us that despite what we might think, our kids are listening. And watching. And both what we do, and what we say about what we’re doing, has a much greater affect on them than we might have thought.

Over the next few months I’ll be delving more deeply into some of the issues we discussed at the #TalkEarly summit, and how I’m working to implement what I learned into our family life and the way I talk about alcohol with my kids. I hope you follow along with this campaign as it’s one I’m honored to work on and feel very strongly about.

I’d love if you watch this quick video from the #TalkEarly summit, where I shared my parenting Words To Live By. Please feel free to share your own “words to live by” in the comments below!

Want to keep an eye on this important discussion? Follow #TalkEarly on Twitter or check out their Pinterest page.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Miss Britt August 27, 2013 at 1:47 pm

My son is 13 and I’m nervous about this. We’ve talked to him, but I’m not sure even *I* know the effects alcohol can have on a young brain and body.

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Meagan Francis August 27, 2013 at 10:56 pm

Britt, that’s something I’m going to be digging into more and sharing here!

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Laura Laing August 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I grew up in a tee-totaler household, raised by a mother whose father was an active alcoholic. Not talking about drinking is a Bad Idea. Not because I went out as a teen and got falling-down drunk. But because even as a 45-year-old mother I have a very distorted view of what it means to be a responsible drinker. To this day, I wonder, “Is it okay for someone to get drunk once a year at the neighborhood holiday party?” and “If my kid sees me socializing with my friends, drinking a martini or two, will that encourage her to try a fancy drink when she’s 14?”

Of course, everyone probably has those questions, right?

Talking about drinking is a lot like talking about sex. If we parents don’t do it, kids will learn about it elsewhere. I’d really rather be the source of that info. So I’m really glad to hear that you’ll be sharing some of your thoughts with the rest of us, Meagan.

Laura

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Meagan Francis August 27, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Thanks for sharing this, Laura! I think so many of us have distorted views about drinking – it’s hard to look at somebody’s public behavior and really know how they are privately, or whether how much and/or the way they drink is healthy for them and whether the same would be healthy for you. Something I’m working on, for sure.

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