It might be a painful topic for some parents, while for others, the issue may have never yet come up. But if you do have young children, would you know what to say if your son or daughter asks: “Daddy (or Mommy), why do you drink?”
Of course, what we say to young children, who are most impressionable in their early years, may have a lot to do with how our children behave toward alcohol and other illicit substances in their teens and young adult years. Those early memories instill tacit approval of drinking and substance use in children and this often shows up years later when the children have matured – and have problems of their own with substance abuse and dependence.
Granted not every parent has a problem with drinking. But even occasional use of alcohol is enough to spark children’s curiosity and interest in why we drink at all. Here are some of the reasons many parents give their children why they (the parents) drink.
- It relaxes me. – Alcohol is a natural sedative, a central nervous system depressant. In that respect, one of the early side effects of drinking is a feeling of relaxation in the body. Every person has a different level of alcohol consumption at which they feel relaxed. For some, one drink may produce the desired effect, while others require several drinks to get there. Over time, tolerance develops, which means they need more and more of the substance to achieve the desired effect. By that time, they have usually developed a problem with alcohol, may be dependent on it, or even addicted.
- Drinking makes me feel better. – Why parents feel they can justify their drinking by telling their children that it makes them feel better is a profound mystery. What the children hear subliminally is that it’s okay to drink if you want to feel better. So, are you, in effect, telling them that if they have trouble on the playground or at school, they can come home and raid your liquor cabinet or down a six-pack of beer? You may never have thought of the impact of your words about drinking, but now it’s a good time to do so.
- I drink because that’s what adults do. – Okay, so you have to be 21 to drink – in most states. But saying that drinking is what adults do implies that all adults are capable of drinking responsibly. Many do, but many also do not know their limits. It might be better to say that an occasional drink by a responsible adult who is not driving is alright in certain circumstances, but never to excess. And underage minors should never drink.
- A drink makes me feel happy. – Do you really want your children to equate drinking alcohol with happiness? That’s what you’re really saying when you tell them that a drink makes you feel happy. They may even feel that you don’t love them enough, that they don’t make you happy, and that’s why you need to drink. Remember that children internalize a lot of emotions. They’re very impressionable, and soak up things like a sponge.
- I can forget my troubles with a cocktail. – Maybe you do have a great many troubles, ones that you’d really like to forget. But telling your child that a drink can help you put those thoughts right out of your head is not responsible on your part. After a few cocktails, you surely will forget your troubles. But they’ll be right there when you sober up – and you’ll feel the effects of the hangover to boot.
- Drinking is just a habit, like having a Coke with a hamburger. It’s harmless. – Sure, some habits are harmless, but drinking isn’t necessarily one of them. The difference between an occasional drink and drinking too frequently is huge. Of course, problem drinking varies by individual and depends on many factors. But if you are drinking every day, sometimes several drinks a day, this habit has veered from being harmless to indicating you may have a problem with alcohol.
- I’ve had a rough day. I deserve a drink. – Children, especially very young children, can’t relate to a “rough day.” All they know is that you’re home and you’re drinking instead of spending time with them. The fact that you confuse the issue by following your first statement up with the insistence that you deserve a drink is even more problematic. Your son or daughter is getting the impression that when things are bad, a drink will solve the problem. That’s definitely not what parents should be indicating to their children by their words and actions.
- This is my little time-out from all the stress I had today. – Again, small children don’t understand stress. What they do understand is that you’re drinking and not paying attention to their needs. You likely take your drink and go off by yourself to enjoy it and then help yourself to another. By the time you’ve gotten over your stress, you may be too far gone to even remember your son or daughter’s request to help with their homework or play a game.
- I like the taste. – Some parents may claim to like the taste, which naturally prompts the curious child to want to sample the drink. You’d think this is a no-no, but many parents allow their children to sip the drink, as if to prove to the child that alcohol is a grown-up’s drink. The child may grimace, say that it’s “Yucky!” but you’ve still allowed them to taste the forbidden. They won’t forget that and it will be hard to lay down the rules about no drinking of alcohol by underage children after that.
- I like the way it makes me feel. – Feelings are hard to describe. To children, they may feel sad or happy, angry or confused, but other than that, their ability to distinguish between various types of feelings is usually limited – especially if they are very young. But if they hear your explanation for why you drink – that you like the way it makes you feel – they may be tempted to try it themselves, and with disastrous results. The real problem for you, however, is when you no longer feel good unless you are drinking. If you find that you have to have a drink in order to have a good time, it may be worth looking at your alcoholic consumption to see if it has become a problem. Not only that, but the more you feel compelled to drink, the more dangerous the influence of your behavior on your children.
- I’ll be in a better mood after I have my drink. – You may, indeed, be in a better mood after you drink, but at what cost to your children? They’re getting from you that it takes a drink to change how you feel, and that’s never a good solution. And don’t discount your facial expressions and body language when you drink. After a few toddies, your entire body sinks into the couch and your facial features relax. After a few more drinks, you may become agitated, anxious, hyper-critical, angry, violent, or weepy – or any number of other exaggerated emotions. So, far from being in a better mood after you drink, it may be just the opposite.
- A drink is my way to unwind. – What does “unwind” mean to a child? They want you to sit down with them at dinner, to help them with their homework, to listen to what happened at school or their plans for sports or extracurricular activities. Maybe they want you to read them a bedtime story so they can fall asleep. If you’re telling them you need to unwind, when will you be available to tend to their needs? What you’re really saying to them is that you come first and they come sometime later, if at all.
Facts About How Parental Drinking Affects Children
Bu the time children are in high school, about 80 percent of them have already tried alcohol. They are exposed to drinking at home, among their friends, and see the influence of alcohol in the mass media. Is it any wonder that they feel entitled to drink?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has stated that more than one-fourth of all children in the United States (19 million children) have been exposed to alcoholism in the family, alcohol abuse, or both by the time they are 18 years old.
Teens who live with fathers who drink are more likely to drink alcohol, binge drink (consumption of five or more drinks on a single occasion), and use illicit drugs than children of fathers who do not drink. This is according to a 2009 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) entitled, “Father’s Alcohol Use and Substance Use Among Adolescents” (//oas.samhsa.gov/2k9/108/FatherAlcUse.htm) And, if the father has an alcohol abuse disorder, the chances that the children will drink and do drugs as teenagers and young adults increases dramatically.
Children who begin drinking before the age of 15 are more likely to experience problems with alcohol as they mature.
If their parents do not support them, keep track of their whereabouts and behavior, and do not communicate openly with them, children whose parents also drink are likely to begin to experiment with and potentially have problems with alcohol.
How Parents Can Drink Responsibly
No one’s saying that parents, as intelligent adults, can’t drink alcohol in a safe and responsible way. And no one is saying that all alcohol drinking is wrong, or that no one should ever drink. But it is incumbent upon parents to exercise good judgment about when and where they drink, especially if there are young children – their own or those of others – present.
Best rule of thumb is to never drink alcohol in front of your children. Other than that, use alcohol moderately.
Monitor all alcohol usage in your home. Keep track of the supply. If you do have alcohol in the home, it should be safeguarded in a locked liquor cabinet.
Never allow children to sip your drinks to taste them or finish them.
Never leave drinks unattended or left on tables and counters overnight after a party or get-together.
Never ask your son or daughter to get you a beer or refresh your drink or bring more ice cubes to your drink.
Ways to Proactively Prevent Alcohol Drinking by Your Children
There’s no question that the number one way to prevent alcoholic consumption by your children is to set a good example. If your children do not see you regularly consume alcohol, or if you do so, it’s in a moderate and responsible manner, they will begin to incorporate the family values about alcohol consumption.
Your attitudes and behavior toward teen alcohol use will also influence your child. Never make jokes about underage drinking or drunkenness, or show any acceptance of teenage alcohol consumption. This has to be a hard and fast rule: no alcohol consumption is permitted for children in your family.
Maybe your child has come right out and asked you if you drank as a child. Many parents have done so and don’t feel comfortable talking about it. They’re embarrassed, don’t know what to say, feel guilty, or feel that they can’t preach to their children to not do what they themselves did. Experts recommend that if you don’t feel comfortable talking about your childhood alcohol use, tell them that you do not wish to discuss that at this time. If you do think you can talk about it, simply tell them that you did try alcohol when you were a child, but that it was wrong to do so. You can also give an example of something painful or embarrassing that occurred as a result of your drinking as a child. The reason to do this is to share with your children the potential negative consequences of underage drinking.
Help your children get all the facts about the dangers of alcohol. There’s a terrific website, the Cool Spot (//www.thecoolspot.gov/), provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
What Will You Say?
In the end, what you say to your son or daughter who asks you, “Daddy (or Mommy), why do you drink?” is all up to you. Try to understand that your child, depending on his or her age, may simply be curious about what it is that you find so appealing about the liquid in that glass or bottle or can that you keep going back to.
They may be reacting to emotional or physical cues that they see from you. They may be feeling neglected or scared or in desperate need of your attention.
In some cases, they may be so used to seeing you drinking that they really wonder what the behavior is all about. The older your child is, the more likely he or she will associate your drinking behavior with the kind of behavior they’ve seen played out on TV, in the movies, perhaps even in public or at get-togethers with family and friends.
It’s tough being a parent at times. But doing the right thing by your children with respect to alcohol consumption is something that you have a limited window of opportunity to do. Why be defensive about drinking alcohol? Why drink in your children’s presence at all? Why take the risk?
In the end, parents want the best for their children. Let’s give them the right foundation to begin with.