How early is too early to start talking to your children about substance use and abuse? It’s probably earlier than you think; a research review from the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found that 9 in 10 European adolescents had their first drink before the age of 15. Many parents seem to think it’s OK for kids to try a sip of alcohol early, but studies show that the earlier a child starts using alcohol or cannabis, the more likely they are to develop a substance abuse disorder later in life.
Why Shouldn’t Your Kid Drink Alcohol?
Aside from an increased risk of developing Alcohol Use Disorder, there are plenty of reasons to discourage your child from drinking.
As we’ve written elsewhere on this blog, there are no exceptions to North Carolina’s underage drinking policy. The legal age is 21, and not a day sooner! This is far stricter than in many states, where a child can drink so long as their parent has given them permission.
You may not agree with this law–many in the comments section of that article expressed their disagreement–but that does not mean you can break it, for yourself or your children.
It may help to warn your children about the health risks associated with alcohol. In addition to impaired judgment and reaction times, which cause driving accidents, a Harvard Review found that drinking has a detrimental effect on the adolescent brain. They conclude, “Discouraging alcohol consumption until neurobiological adulthood is reached is important for minimizing alcohol-related disruptions in brain development and decision-making capacity, and reducing the negative behavioral consequences associated with underage alcohol use.”
Boys’ Mental Health Matters
Health and legal risks aside, we all know it’s difficult to grow up and hear all the things we cannot do. That said, an article from the Journal of Adolescent Health underlines that parental disapproval of underage drinking is key in prevention. This is especially true for boys, who–according to the State University of New York–are conditioned to feel that alcohol use is condoned or even encouraged.
A targeted approach may help reach your child better than a simple “no.” For that, we need to consider why our boys turn to drinking.
While the State University of New York article talks about boys’ conditioning toward accepted alcohol use, it also talks about how unmitigated stress leads to drinking for both boys and girls. This can be particularly damaging for boys growing up in a mindset of toxic masculinity, which can lead them to underestimate the importance of mental health.
Alcohol is a negative coping mechanism for dealing with stress; while it can remove unpleasant emotions in the short term, its role as a depressant means that it can often leave you feeling worse when the bottle is empty. (Alcohol can also reduce the effects of antidepressant medication such as SSRIs, so it’s even more important that your child avoids alcohol if they are on such a medication.)
So when talking about alcohol with your son, don’t neglect his mental health. Take a look at the following risk factors:
- Mood swings or a sudden, prolonged period of sadness
- More or less sleep than usual
- More or less food than usual
- A drop in academic performance
- Loneliness (particularly after a breakup with a friend or partner)
- Bullying, whether past or current
If you recognize some of these changes, please consider your son’s risk of developing depression or anxiety. You may think he’s too young or doesn’t have problems, but remember that children get depressed, too. It’s crucial to tackle these issues early.
Whether your son is experiencing these symptoms now, or you want to prevent such symptoms appearing in the future, make sure you teach him the value of support systems and positive coping mechanisms.
What does your son do for fun? Is that an activity he chose for himself? It’s OK to encourage our kids to take up activities that are good for them, but make sure you’re not controlling every aspect of his life. He needs to be free to explore likes and dislikes, too.
Does he have friends? Are you one of them? That’s not to say you should relinquish your role as the authority in the household, but ask yourself–if he was having a hard time at school, do you think he’d talk about it with you? If not, it’s never too late to forge those bonds.
You want your son to grow up as a healthy, independent adult; ensuring that he has people and things in his life that make him happy and comforted is so important.
While mental health may be the most important factor in your kids’ decision to drink, some studies suggest a link between advertising, peers’ drinking, and sports. (Keep in mind, however, that correlation does not mean causation; these links are not definitive proof of these factors leading to alcohol use.)
The research review from Alcohol and Alcoholism looked at 13 other studies on the effect of alcohol advertising on children and found a correlation. While the FTC does not regulate alcohol advertising (citing free speech), they do encourage self-regulation by alcohol advertisers; most advertisers agree that “no more than 28.4% of the audience for an ad may consist of people under 21”.
It would be nearly impossible to restrict your growing son to never seeing alcohol portrayed in the media. However, the FTC recommends several ways that you can have conversations about advertisements, asking your son questions about what the ad is portraying and what it seems to want him to do. Kids don’t like to be manipulated!
A study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology shows a correlation between alcohol use in students and their peers; that is, your son is more likely to drink if his friends also drink.
But you can’t watch your son at every moment. Make sure he has the confidence and strategies required to say no if his friends are drinking around him.
While sports are a positive coping mechanism for dealing with stress, one study found that the culture surrounding sports is associated with an increased risk of adolescent alcohol use. This doesn’t mean you should pull Jimmy out of soccer practice before it’s too late, but keep this correlation in mind.
This should give you several different targets for approaching your son about substance abuse–whether he responds better to logical arguments, asserting his independence, or a supportive environment. Whatever system works, be sure you keep having conversations about your son’s mental state, friends, and hobbies. This foundation will help him avoid alcohol until he comes of age–and use it responsibly when the time is right.