How to Discuss Drinking With Your Child (ages 5 - 8)
Age-appropriate ways of discussing alcohol and drinking with your young child.
What to expect at this age
Young grade-schoolers vary in their curiosity about alcohol, depending on how much people use and discuss it at home. But they're probably starting to hear more about drinking from friends at school, which makes this is a perfect age to teach the facts and bolster the self-esteem that can help children resist alcohol abuse during the teen years.
It's also an age on which you can have a lot of influence. "At this age, if you tell them it's bad, they think it's bad," says Paul Coleman, a father, family therapist, and author of How to Say It to Your Kids. So state your values firmly, work on establishing good communication with your child, and set an example by taking good care of yourself physically and avoiding overuse of alcohol.
How to Talk About Alcohol
Focus on health. At this age, it's important for your child to receive praise for taking care of his body and overall health. Just as you tell him (repeatedly) that he needs to avoid too much sugar and brush his teeth daily, make sure he knows that too much of anything can be harmful. Explain that alcohol is a drug and that, even in tiny amounts, it's especially dangerous for children because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing.
Make your values clear. Many parents assume that their children are aware of how they feel about alcohol, as well as cigarettes and drugs — but you need to discuss these issues openly; your grade-schooler can't simply absorb your values by osmosis. In fact, you've got competition, given that friends, movies, and video games may depict drunkenness as funny or even cool. It's your job, as the parent, to communicate your values clearly. In addition to not drinking excessively in front of your child, you can teach him the value of self-discipline in concrete and positive ways. Skip the lectures — just comment, if a character in a movie gets drunk, that you think the person is being foolish. Say aloud at dinner that you've finished your one glass of wine and that it was enough. You can also focus on temptations that have real meaning for the grade-school crowd: "Mmmm," you can say at the ice-cream store, "that sundae was really good. More ice cream might taste good, but it would be bad for my body and might even make me a little sick."
Be approachable. Now is the time to establish yourself as a parent who will answer any question — no matter how difficult or disturbing — calmly and thoughtfully. When your child reaches middle school and starts to have serious questions about alcohol and drugs, it will help if you have a history of heart-to-heart talks. Right now, he may not have many specific questions about alcohol, but you can set the stage for tomorrow's talks about drinking and peer pressure by answering today's questions about sex and bodily functions. And since many grade-schoolers do have relatives or family friends who get drunk at family parties or who abuse alcohol regularly, at this age he could have a lot of questions about this behavior and other people's reactions to it. Don't duck the issue.
Teach him how to say no. If your child can learn from an early age to assert his views confidently, he'll be better able to withstand the peer pressure of the preteen and teen years, when drinking becomes more common. (The U.S. Department of Education reports that at least 4.6 million people already have a drinking problem in their teens.) Listen to him when he states his opinions, and when you disagree with him, do so politely and respectfully. Kids who consistently hear, "That's a silly idea, why would anyone think that?" or "Don't you argue with me!" are, as teens, less sure of themselves, more rebellious, and less able to heed those inner voices preaching good sense.
Reassure your child that you approve of him. Children are more vulnerable to alcohol abuse if they think poorly of themselves or if they're starved for affection and attention. Spend time with him: Studies show that children who eat at least one meal a day with their families and share at least one weekly activity are less likely to drink. Be sure to keep telling your grade-schooler often how much you love him, and praise him genuinely whenever he deserves it.
What Kids Ask About Drugs and Alcohol and How You Can Answer
"What's alcohol?" Your 6-year-old is ready for a very simple explanation: "Alcohol is a chemical that's in some drinks, like beer and wine. Adults can drink a little bit as a treat — just like eating a little ice cream is a treat. But if they drink too much, alcohol is poisonous to their bodies. They get silly, then sick and dizzy and headachy. Eventually, if people drink way too much alcohol, it can kill them." Older children will want — and need — further information: "If people drink a lot of alcohol, it's like cigarettes or drugs — they can get addicted, which means they have trouble stopping themselves from drinking. And if you get addicted, you may drink so much that you poison a part your body called the liver. If your liver wears out, you die. Also, people who are drunk can't drive safely, even though they sometimes think they can. Drunk drivers cause car accidents that hurt or kill themselves or other people."
"Can I have a sip of your drink?" Families differ in their approach to this question. If you think your child should never touch alcohol, tell him, "No, it can make you sick. Your body is still growing, so alcohol is very bad for you in ways that it's not bad for grown-ups." Other parents believe that letting their child sample a drink will remove the mystery, and hence the appeal. In that case, say, "All right, just one taste," and be prepared to hear your child say, "Yuck! That's awful — why do you like it?" Then you can explain that grownups and kids like different foods and drinks, but that you agree that too much alcohol tastes bad to you too.
"If alcohol is bad for you, why are you having wine?" If you've explained that alcohol can be dangerous, your child probably won't understand why you're flirting with danger by drinking. Try several different explanations, and focus on ways of drinking responsibly: "One glass of wine with dinner is relaxing for grownups, just like one piece of cake is okay for you. I'm being careful not to drink too much." "When I have a glass of beer, I always have it with food and a glass of water, too. Alcohol is worse for your body if you drink it when you're hungry and thirsty." "Because we're having dinner with friends, a little bit of wine is okay. But see that Dad's not having any? That's because he's going to drive us all home tonight, and he doesn't want to risk feeling dizzy when he's driving." "I'm a grownup, so it's legal for me to drink as long as I don't get drunk. But it's against the law for kids to drink any alcohol because their brains and bodies are still growing."
"What does 'drunk' mean?" A grade-schooler wants a good definition; sometimes he's also trying to interpret the way a grownup is acting at a party, so he might simply ask, "Why is Aunt Sue acting that way?" You can respond, "People get drunk when they've had too much alcohol. Then they're out of control — they might talk too loudly or act silly or get mad easily. They can get dizzy and sick to their stomach, and pretty soon they get a headache. Sometimes people who are drunk laugh a lot or look like they're having a good time, but it's not really fun or cool to be out of control and hurt your body like that."
"Why do people want to get drunk?" This may follow the "Why is Aunt Sue acting that way?" question. You can respond with "Sometimes grownups want to get drunk because they're sad or lonely or they think it will help them forget about their problems, but it doesn't. It just gives them more problems and makes them feel sick." And rather than using a judgmental tone or emphasizing personal weakness as a reason for drinking to excess, explain that people who get drunk a lot may have a sickness called alcoholism that they need help to get over.
"What does 'addicted' mean?" "'Addicted' means you want something so much that you can't stop having it — like someone who can't stop drinking beer. People who are addicted to alcohol stop eating properly and they usually don't take care of their bodies. Their liver wears out, which can kill them."
"Why doesn't Katie see her dad anymore?" A grade-schooler who recognizes certain social problems may not yet know that alcohol is the cause. If someone in your family is a drinker, your child may have been asking these questions from an early age. If a friend of your child has an alcoholic relative, be alert for some new questions. You can explain, "Katie's dad drank too much alcohol — not just once or twice, but almost every day. He got so addicted that he couldn't work anymore or help Katie's mom take care of the family. I don't know if he'll stop drinking and get well enough to come back or not. Katie probably misses her dad, and it's a very sad thing when this happens to a family." A one-time explanation is enough for some grade-schoolers, but others may want to revisit the topic periodically, so be prepared to have several conversations to help him sort out the physical and emotional issues involved.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- Parent Center
Staff, H. (2008, December 21). How to Discuss Drinking With Your Child (ages 5 - 8), HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, January 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/addictions/how-to-discuss-drinking-with-your-young-child