Why You Should Talk to Your Kids About Alcohol Sooner Than You Think

Kids are observant and learn behaviors by watching and listening to us. Establishing healthy conversations around alcohol use will help them understand the dangers and responsibilities associated with drinking.

Mid adult woman holding wine talking to man with son
Photo: Getty

"Do you know what a beer is?" I asked my precious five-year-old son as we built another Lego tower. "No, but I know what a spear is," he replied. His innocent words made me smile. This was the response I had expected from him. We don't keep alcohol in our house, because neither I nor his father drinks it.

My husband was never a drinker, and I quit drinking when my son was eighteen months old. I love watching him grow and being the one who gets to teach him about the world. Soon, he'll be entering school for the first time. I'm excited and nervous. I'll no longer be his main source of information, and I won't be able to shield him from subjects I don't think he's ready for yet.

He's always been an inquisitive child. He asks questions and is eager to learn. Now that he's getting older, I realize that I have to not only equip him with knowledge about bugs and dinosaurs, but I also need to have difficult discussions with him about subjects that can be uncomfortable to talk about, like alcohol.

You Are Your Child's First Educator

When you think of having "the alcohol talk" you might think about talking to your teenagers. Many parents don't realize the importance of talking to their younger children about alcohol too.

We are our children's first teachers. Once they start school, their worlds expand exponentially and suddenly they have a variety of people to learn from. They're surrounded by peers with diverse home environments. Their teachers and classmates are the ones who they get information from.

Because drinking is so normalized and promoted in our society, many people forget about the dangers of it. We don't always keep in mind what we learned through social messaging and in school as we become legal drinking age. It's a rite of passage for many adults, and it's consumption is often celebrated.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "an estimated 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States."

We don't need to get into the details and statistics of alcohol abuse with our young children, but it's important to remember that it can be harmful to those who drink it. This is a great reason to start talking to our children about alcohol early.

Kids Are Smarter Than We Think

Small children are extremely observant. They learn by modeling after others. They're often paying more attention than we realize. For this reason, it's important to demonstrate healthy behaviors around our children. When an adult comes home from work and says "boy, that was a rough day, I need a drink," it teaches the child that alcohol can fix a problem.

Instead of announcing the drink and the reason for drinking it, just have the drink. Say something like "boy, that was a rough day, I'm glad to be home." Changing the way we speak around our children is one simple way to model healthy behaviors.

"The thing to remember is we are just planting seeds, exposing our children to the realness of the world in a safe and supportive environment, so that by the time this realness enters their lives, they have little knowledge to go off of," says Kelsey Rehome, M.A., a clinical mental health counselor in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.

In addition to being aware of the language we use around our children, fostering an open relationship with them at an early age is imperative. Doing so lets them know they can trust us.

"When there is not an open line of communication between adults and children, children are left to make assumptions based on their own perceptions," says Rehome. Little moments of teaching that happen unintentionally can make a significant impact on our children's development.

Every Family is Different

Alcohol shows up in a variety of ways in our own lives and each family situation is unique. Like anything else, you must decide what is best for your family, but regardless of your own relationship with alcohol, it's an important conversation to have early.

If you don't drink alcohol in front of your kids, or don't drink it at all, the topic may not come up naturally. Starting this conversation can be intimidating, but remember, having open and honest conversations with your children will only enhance your relationship with them.

If you're a person who drinks alcohol, talk to your kids about it when the subject comes up. If your child attempts to take a sip from your glass. Instead of saying "you can't have that, it's for adults only," tell them it's unsafe for children to drink because they are still growing, and alcohol would make them very sick.

Rehome explains, "Have a general conversation about physical health and what we consume—why do we eat certain foods, how do eating and drinking make our body feel, what things make it feel good, what things make it feel bad."

If you mention the dangers of alcohol, they might be curious about why adults drink it. Explain that if an adult drinks alcohol responsibly and in a moderate amount, it's OK. Discuss appropriate settings to drink alcohol. Use examples they already see, like at weddings, parties, and restaurants.

If your children question why an adult would drink alcohol if it makes them feel bad, let them know each adult gets to make that choice. And when they grow up, they'll be able to decide what is best for them too. It's also important to remind them it is against the law for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

In addition, be aware of how you model drinking in front of your children too. It's important to remember that it can be confusing and scary for your child to see your behavior or mood change while under the influence of alcohol. Try to be mindful of your own drinking habits while around your children.

For those who struggle with alcohol use or addiction, it's especially important to teach children about alcohol early. "Observing a parent with alcohol use disorder has a major impact on the emotional and mental health of the child," says Gillian Tietz, M.S., host of the Sober Powered Podcast.

"Children growing up in homes where a parent drinks heavily are more likely to have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), are more likely to struggle with their emotions, and are four times more likely to develop an addiction themselves." If a parent is away getting help for their alcohol problem, explain that they are getting help for a sickness, but they will be back. And tell the child that it isn't their fault.

Age-Appropriate Conversations Are Key

There are a few things to remember about having any conversation with your young child. Keep it age-appropriate and allow them to ask questions. You may decide to start the conversation on your own or wait until it comes up naturally. Remember to keep the discussions light and fun, and don't overdo it.

If you're unsure of where to start, it may be a good idea to find out what your child knows about alcohol. That's what I did with my son. Let them lead the conversation and keep it simple. Remember, you can talk to a child about any subject if you explain things in a way that they can comprehend. And it's your job to prepare them for the world.

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