Did you know that 9 in 10 European adolescents started drinking before the age of 15? Children start drinking earlier than you might think. It’s important to note that there are no exceptions to North Carolina’s underage drinking policy; that is, it’s not even OK for you to give your kids a sip of alcohol before their twenty-first birthday.
In addition to the legal risks, studies show that children who start using alcohol early are at a heightened risk for developing Alcohol Use Disorder. In addition, a Harvard Review found that underage drinking can harm the development of the adolescent brain, concluding, “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.”
According to the Journal of Adolescent health, one key to preventing underage alcohol use is parental disapproval. So what are some age-appropriate ways to keep your daughter from turning to alcohol at an age where it feels like all you hear is no?
Girls’ Mental Health Matters
The State University of New York reports that alcohol use in boys tends to be condoned, or even encouraged, while it is dissuaded for girls. However, in some cases, this simply means that girls are more likely to hide their alcohol use. The same study lists problems with stress as a major factor leading to drinking in both boys and girls.
There are positive and negative coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. Alcohol, as a depressant, is a negative coping mechanism; it can relieve stress in the short term, but in the long term it generally makes the user feel worse. As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your daughter is to provide her with positive coping mechanisms instead.
Does your daughter have hobbies she enjoys–not simply hobbies that you have encouraged her to do? Does she enjoy spending time in her own company? Does she have a healthy social life and a support system; that is, who will she talk to if she’s having a bad day? (If you don’t think she’d be comfortable coming to you in her time of need, ask yourself, why not? It’s never too late to forge a healthy friendship with your daughter.) Ensuring that she is mentally healthy will help her turn into a functional, healthy adult.
But keep in mind the following risk factors for mental illness–yes, even in kids:
- 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
Be sure to schedule an appointment with her doctor and/or therapist if you’re concerned. (And remind her that alcohol can reduce the effect of many SSRI medications, if she goes on them.)
Mental health isn’t the only factor contributing to girls turning to alcohol use. Some studies have suggested alcohol advertising in the media, the culture around sports, and other peers drinking might also lead kids to drink. (DISCLAIMER: The studies show a relationship between these factors; they do not definitively prove that advertising, sports, or peers lead kids to drink.)
In a review of 13 other studies about the link between alcohol advertising and underage alcohol use, the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found a correlation. Most alcohol advertisers follow an industry rule that they will only air ads where over 70% of those watching are over 21 years old, but this rule is not upheld by the FTC.
We all know there’s no way you can prevent your daughter from ever seeing alcohol portrayed in the media. But the FTC does provide some tips on how to have a conversation with your daughters about what they’re seeing in ads. You can ask her questions, such as “how does this ad make you feel? What do you think this ad wants you to do?” Appeal to her innate sense of independence; she doesn’t want to be manipulated by anyone, including commercials.
If all her friends were jumping off a bridge, your daughter wouldn’t do it; she’s very smart, after all! But if they were all drinking, it would be a lot harder for her to say no; the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology has shown a link between underage drinking in individuals and their peers.
Once again, you can’t watch your daughters at every moment, so you can’t prevent them from having friends whose parents bend the rules or leave alcohol around. The best thing you can do is teach her confidence in her ability to say no, and discuss some ways to say no if her friends offer.
We talked earlier about positive vs. negative coping mechanisms. Most people will tell you that sports and exercise can be a positive coping mechanism–rightfully so! The exercise and bonds with teammates can be an extremely positive force in your daughter’s life. However, one study found a link between sports culture and an increased risk of underage drinking–in both girls and boys.
While that doesn’t mean Janet needs to be pulled from her soccer practice, keep this relationship in mind. You might mention to your sporty daughter that alcohol is a diuretic–that is, it can leave her dehydrated and worsen her performance before a big game.
You know your daughter better than anyone. Perhaps she learns best by logical arguments about dehydration, health risks, or legal risks. Perhaps she will respond better to arguments that let her exert her independence, such as empowering her confidence to say no and not letting the media manipulate her. Perhaps above all she just needs better coping mechanisms and your support. Whatever approach will help her learn best, I hope this article has given you some ideas on how to talk to your daughter about underage drinking.