Helping Kids Develop a Healthy Relationship with Alcohol
The research is quite surprising.
I’m writing today’s newsletter from an adorable cabin near Red Hook, New York, where I’m escaping for a few days by myself while my kids are at sleepaway camp. I’ll share more about the experience of being totally kid-free very soon — it’s been pretty surreal so far. Here’s a photo of my cabin, which is surrounded by farmland:
Today, though, I want to talk about kids and alcohol. I’ve gotten several recent requests from you for a piece that digs into the science of what parents can do to help kids develop a healthy relationship with alcohol. So last week I interviewed Danielle Dick, a neuroscientist who directs the Rutgers Addiction Research Center. (You may also remember her from when I interviewed her about her book The Child Code.) Dr. Dick has spent over 20 years studying the development of substance use and how genes and environment intersect to shape risk in teens, and she had lots to say.
Today’s newsletter is a Q&A based on our conversation about alcohol, and a second installment will focus on what we discussed about cannabis. This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity. I found it very eye-opening — I hope you do, too!
I have so many things to ask you, but I want to start with a question I often get from parents. Is it bad to let kids have sips of alcohol at home in an effort to make it less of a forbidden fruit? Or is it better to forbid it entirely?
This is one of the biggest questions that I get from parents, too. I sometimes jokingly call it the European myth. Many parents will say, “In Europe, they allow their children to have the glass of wine at special occasions.” And the rationale is exactly what you said: that if we don’t make it so off limits, maybe they won’t engage in alcohol use in such risky ways. But the reality is, the research does not at all support the idea that letting kids try alcohol, or making it less forbidden, reduces the likelihood that they're going to use. In fact, it supports the opposite.
It turns out that in Europe, where alcohol is more acceptable — it's more freely available, there's a younger drinking age, parents do tend to allow their children sips or a glass here and there — there are far higher rates of drinking and risky drinking in adolescents than in the United States. I sometimes jokingly say that you might see a child responsibly having a glass of wine with their parents out at a nice meal, but as soon as those parents are not around, that child is not responsibly having a glass of wine with their friends. They're much more likely to feel comfortable around alcohol and to want to use it in risky ways with their friends.
All this said, the reality is, if it’s like a tiny sip on a special occasion, it’s not going to drastically harm your child's brain. I think the bigger question is, what is the message you're trying to send? Maybe in your family it is very important that you have some special drink, which has some little amount of alcohol in it, on a holiday because that's what you've always done — you did it with your parents, and they did it with their parents. Then I think that’s an avenue to have conversations with your child about it — “We're allowing it in this circumstance, but here are the rules surrounding alcohol in our family.”
A related question I get is this: Should I let my teen drink at my house with their friends under our supervision? The rationale being if you don’t allow it at home, they’ll just do it somewhere else, where it may be more dangerous.
I get that from parents all the time, too. And I think there's a couple of big things to think about with this question. One, it assumes that all kids are going to drink. And that is not the case. A substantial portion of kids choose not to drink. In fact, rates of alcohol use have been dropping since we were kids.
Two, it sends the message that you're going to accept [teen drinking] — that it’s okay. The other thing for parents to consider is that in most states, it is illegal to provide alcohol to an underage minor that's not your child. So there's legal repercussions.
Another piece is that the things about alcohol that usually keep us in check — it makes you feel sleepy, it makes you slur your words — kids are actually less affected by those things. They're more likely to have the stimulant properties — like “I feel good, isn't this fun” — and they're less likely to feel sick the next day. Because kids are less likely to experience those adverse things, they don't have the natural checks and balances that we do as adults.
Let’s dig into how and when to have conversations about alcohol with kids. What are your key suggestions?
You definitely want to have conversations with your kids about this, but before you do, you probably want to talk to your partner, if there's another caregiver who's helping raise the child. Parents need to decide, first, what are the rules going to be?
Conversations surrounding alcohol should be things that you start having with your kids when they're little — because they're inevitably going to say, “Hey, can I have a sip of that?” And you can say, “No, because there's alcohol in it, and alcohol is something only adults drink.” They might say, “Why?” And you might say, “It affects your brain, and it affects the brains of little kids differently than it does adults. That's why you have to be an adult.” There's growing evidence that alcohol isn't good for any of us. But because kids’ brains are still developing, and they're developing so rapidly in adolescence, we know that alcohol has much stronger adverse effects on kids’ brain development.
If you want to start a conversation yourself, it's often better to start with questions. You can use this as an opening: “Hey, I was reading a blog today that was all about kids and alcohol use. Do you see a lot of kids using it your school, or kids talking about alcohol or other drugs at your school? Are any of your friends already using or experimenting?”
There's all sorts of things in our society that you can use as entry points for a conversation, too. You walk into the grocery store and there's a massive [alcohol] display. You can say, “Do you have friends that are talking about alcohol?” You want to learn from your kids about what is going on in their schools, what are they hearing. That's when you can then feed them facts and help them understand the truth about alcohol and how it affects them. And that's also a place where you can say, “Here are the rules surrounding alcohol in our house.”
I think about providing them with the facts. And then I use those facts as the basis for what the rules are. “The reality is, it's illegal, and you don't want to get in trouble — you don't want to mess up all the things that you want to do, like going to college. It's my job as your parent to protect you, and to help you grow into the best version of yourself. And even if you really want to do this right now, even if you see your friends doing it, I'm sorry. We have a ‘no drinking until you're 21’ rule in this house.” You also want to tell your kids what the consequences will be if they break the rule.
It should never be a one and done conversation. What we know is that these need to be ongoing conversations with kids. And the younger you start having the conversations, the more normalized they become.
What kinds of things aren’t helpful to say to kids?
Don’t come racing in say to your teenager, “Hey, I want to talk about alcohol. Don’t do in this house! Not allowed! These are our rules!” If you come in guns blazing, and they feel like you’re laying down all the law, they tend to tune you out.
Also, if you just come in to kids and say, “Alcohol is bad, don't do it,” they start looking around, and they go, “But I actually see what look like good things.” They might be thinking, “I hear you, saying alcohol is not good for my brain. But I feel like my friends use and I'm not going to fit in if I don’t drink.” You can have a conversation about that — you still have the facts in your back pocket, but you can then say, “I can see why that's really important. So let's think about how would you handle it if somebody offered you a drink. Let's come up with a strategy.” So it really enables you to have these more nuanced conversations to try and understand why your child might want to use alcohol, and to brainstorm about alternative strategies, and to practice those strategies.
It doesn't mean you're going to change the hard no — it just means you're going to help them so that they don't feel like they're making this impossible choice between following mom's rules and not being able to deal with a particular social situation.
What if they ask you questions about your past, like, “Did you ever drink before you were 21?,” when, in fact, you did?
The first thing I always say to parents is that you are under no obligation to tell your kids about what you did when you were a kid. If your child was asking you about your sex life, you would have no problem being like, “Actually, that's personal. That's something that I'm not going to share with you.” You can totally say that about alcohol and other drugs.
Or maybe you do want to share and you can say, “You know what, I did drink before I was 21.” That can also be an entry point to saying, “But the reality is that things are different now than they were then.” Because we know a lot more now about how alcohol damages developing brains than we did a generation ago. I mean, nobody had to wear seatbelts a generation ago, either. And now we know that wasn't such a good thing. With drugs, unfortunately, it's just a much more dangerous landscape for them in terms of the potential for harmful consequences.
What if you have a relative who's struggling with addiction? Should you tell your kids, and if so, how?
Absolutely — you should share that information with your kids. I think the fact that people worry about sharing this with their kids — which is really just relevant health information, which has very real implications for their child's risk — is coming from the fact that substance use disorders are still so stigmatized. Think about it in the same way you would if there was cardiovascular disease running in your family. That's important information for your kids to know, because they're carrying a different level of risk.
The other reality is that we know genetic influences play a big role in why some people are more at risk than others. They account for about half of the variation between people and why some people are more at risk of developing problems than others. Say, “Hey, Aunt Sally really struggled with alcohol or with other drugs. And the reality is that’s partly genetic. And so it means that you could be at increased risk, which means that you're not going to be able to use alcohol or other drugs in the same way that your friends are, because you're more likely to develop problems. That's something that I want you to be aware of as you are making choices.”
One of the biggest myths I find people have is that they'll understand genetics is important, but they think it is all about how their body is going to respond to a drug — that they're much more likely to become addicted to alcohol or to another drug. And yes, a little piece of the genetic predisposition is that our bodies respond differently to drugs. But the bigger pieces are that kids who are more risk-taking and more sensation-seeking — that's a genetically influenced temperamental characteristic — they are much more likely to want to push the edge of the envelope and to use drugs and to enjoy the intoxicating properties of drugs, and to be more likely to use them in heavy and risky ways and to develop problems.
Then the kids who are the flip side — the kids who are more depressed or anxious — are actually less likely to use in adolescence. But as they get older, once they have ready access to it, they're actually more likely to start using to self medicate, and develop problems later. So if your child has one of these two kinds of big tendencies, then understanding they might be at elevated risk, and having those conversations with them, is important as well.