How to talk to your kids about alcohol

Don't wait until high school to discuss drinking with your kids. Experts say you should start by age 9. Here's how to start the convo.

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Have you had The Talk with your school-ager yet? No, not the sex talk—the alcohol talk. You may have thought this particular heart-to-heart could wait until high school, but speaking to your kids about drinking should happen by age nine, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

That might sound young. After all, many nine-year-olds are still playing with Lego and Barbies. But this is when kids start to think positively about alcohol, thanks in part to ads that depict it as fun, social and risk-free, says Catherine Paradis, a senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in Ottawa. Researchers also say you have the most influence on your kid’s feelings and decisions about alcohol before she tries it.

Your mission: Mitigate the “alcohol equals fun” equation. Not with scary stories or a narrow “not until you’re legal” edict, but by arming your kid with practical and factual information, says Laura Morelli, a public health nurse in Waterloo, Ont., whose work focuses on injury and substance misuse prevention. You want your kid to know that it’s OK for adults to enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol, and that it’s a large part of the adult world. You want them to question the way alcohol is portrayed in ads, media and movies; to know drinking isn’t safe for kids because their brains and bodies are still growing; and to understand that if anyone drinks too much, there can be negative consequences, says Paradis.

Here are some other tips to help you with the alcohol talk.

Don’t preach or panic
Lectures and scare tactics are far less effective than a casual conversation, says Paradis. “Be clear and be firm about what your family’s rules are, but speak calmly and have a relaxed attitude,” she says.

Talk while you drink
A natural time to raise the topic is over dinner, when there’s alcohol on the table, says Morelli. You could ask, “Why do you think Mom and Dad are having wine with dinner?” or “Why isn’t it a good idea for kids to drink?”

Alcohol has been a dinner-table topic in Michelle Pentz Glave’s family since her kids, Duncan, 12, and Sabrina, 14, were seven and eight. “They see us have a drink, and they know it’s about enjoying life and a meal,” says Pentz Glave, who lives in the Vancouver area. “We also talk about the serious stuff that’s personal to them, like a teammate who has an alcoholic parent or a fatal DUI crash in our community.”

Find out what they know
Ask your kids what people at school are saying about alcohol—both their friends and their teachers. When Pentz Glave’s kids described a drug and alcohol presentation at school as “dumb and unrealistic,” the family talked about the content to make sure the information didn’t get discarded just because the presentation was a bit dated or a little too earnest.

Aim for lots of little talks
Rather than having one big discussion, raise the topic when it naturally comes up. For example, when one of those “bro” beer ads comes on TV, ask, “What do you think about how they’re acting?” suggests Paradis.

Keri Myers started talking to her son Christian about alcohol when he was six or seven, while they were camping and he noticed people drinking around the campfire. “I told him drinking is for grown-ups,” says the Calgary mom, “and that it can make people act silly.” Myers also uses real-life examples. She works in insurance, so when Christian was around 10, she mentioned that one of her clients had called that day to say he’d lost his licence because of an impaired-driving charge. “We always talked about drinking openly, as it came up,” says Myers. Christian’s now 17, and Myers believes he’s level-headed about booze. “He sees both sides,” she says. “The good and the bad.”

Important stats
* Canadian kids are exposed to more than 300,000 alcohol ads annually via radio, TV and the Internet.
* One in 25 Canadian 12- to 14-year-olds binge drinks.
* Kids who begin drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to develop a drinking problem compared with those who start when they are of age.

A version of this article appeared in our June 2016 issue with the headline “The alcohol talk,” pg. 54.

Read more:
Oops! I made alcohol seem cool to my kid
Do you let your kids taste alcohol?
Mommy needs her wine: The message this sends to kids

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