Therese Chilton, of Galloway, Ohio, was shocked to discover that at age 11, her daughter, Christina, had already had close encounters with alcohol. "We were discussing our favorite television commercials," Chilton recalls. "My husband mentioned a light-beer ad, and Christina remarked, 'That's the beer my friends drink.' " Though Chilton was relieved to learn that her daughter wasn't chugging along with them, she was astonished to learn that kids were experimenting with alcohol at such a young age.
But exploits like this are not unusual. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in Bethesda, Maryland, about 30 percent of kids have experimented with drinking by age 13, spurred by factors including peer pressure and the media's glamorization of alcohol. "It's a serious health problem with devastating consequences for preteens," says David Jernigan, Ph.D., research director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.
During their preteen years, kids like to test their limits, but they have immature judgment and shaky self-control. If they drink, it's usually to get drunk. Young people who start before age 13 are likely to binge drink and are at the greatest risk for alcohol poisoning, addiction, and injuries. And a new report reveals that heavy drinking can damage a preteen's still-developing brain: It permanently impairs memory, problem solving, and verbal skills, jeopardizing the child's academic and professional future. "The heartening news is that underage drinking is preventable, and parents are the first line of defense," Dr. Jernigan says. Here's what you can do now to prepare your preteen to resist alcohol.
Talk About It
Let your child know he can talk to you--about anything. Studies show that kids are apt to delay drinking when they have a close relationship with their parents. And if your child does tell you about drinking in his peer group, don't yell or lecture; if you do, you'll never hear about it again. Listen calmly, and then make your objections clear. "You don't want to stifle discussion, but you need to send an unequivocal message that alcohol is not for kids," says Robert Schwebel, Ph.D., author of Saying No Is Not Enough.
Even young kids are bombarded with advertisements that make drinking look cool and sophisticated, so it's essential to counter that message. Ask your child what she thinks these appealing alcohol ads are suggesting, and talk about what isn't being shown. "A beer commercial with people partying implies that alcohol makes you happy, but we need to get kids thinking about what happens after the party," Dr. Schwebel says. Some of those revelers will be throwing up, passing out, and driving drunk. Remind your child that she doesn't need alcohol to relax or have fun.
Avoid Mixed Messages
"Don't come home and say, 'I had a rough day; I need a drink,'" cautions Patricia Powell, Ph.D., health-science administrator at the NIAAA. Instead, show your child other ways to unwind, such as exercising or listening to music. If you do have a cocktail occasionally in front of your child, explain, "Alcohol is legal for me because I'm over 21. But I still must be responsible. I only drink once in a while, and I never, ever drink and drive." Tell your child that his brain is still growing and that using alcohol now can affect his intelligence forever. "Be a good role model, and be vigilant," urges Lori Hauser Holden, Missouri's first lady and cochair of the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol-Free, a coalition working to prevent alcohol use by children. Don't let your preteen have access to alcohol in your home; keep bottles hidden or even locked up. And always check with other parents to be sure gatherings are well supervised.
Teach Kids To Say No
Understand that despite your efforts to keep your child from booze, friends may still pressure her to drink. Talk to her about what she would say and do in those situations. The best comebacks are brief and forceful: "No, thanks," "I'd get thrown off the team," "My mom would kill me." Urge her to call you if she's in an uncomfortable situation so you can come and get her. Acknowledge her fear of being stigmatized as a loser for not drinking, but remind her that most kids her age don't drink. "Help her feel good about herself and her ability to make smart decisions," Dr. Powell says. Kids with strong self-esteem won't mind being different from the crowd.
What Should You Say?
Q: Can I have a sip of your wine?
A: Alcohol is not for kids. For one thing, it's against the law. Plus, adults' bodies are fully grown, so they can handle drinking, but kids' bodies aren't.
Q: What's the big deal about having just one beer?
A: It can be hard to stop after just one. For someone your age, even one beer can slow down thinking and lead to accidents and bad decisions.
Q: If it's so bad for you, how come you drink at dinner and ball games?
A: As long as adults drink responsibly, having a beer or a glass of wine once in a while is safe. I'm careful not to drink too much, but many people aren't. Remember that guy staggering out of the ballpark? He didn't make good decisions about alcohol.