PARENTS, not peers, have the biggest influence on a young person's use of alcohol. This, according to Dr. Patricia O'Gorman of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Sadly, many parents unwittingly use this influence to promote drinking problems in their children. In contrast, others instill an attitude of moderation that stands their children in good stead when peer pressure to misuse alcohol comes along.
And that pressure does come, and at younger and younger ages. Teenage and preteen drinking is on the rise — alcohol has become the "drug of choice" among the young. According to one U.S. government study, more than 60 percent of 12 year olds drink. Another study showed that about one half of American high school students go to drinking parties at least once a month.
Why do young people turn to alcohol? They use it for the same reasons adults do — to relieve stressful pressures, to forget about problems, to go along with the crowd.
But use of alcohol to avoid problems can have an even worse effect on the young than it does on their parents, because young people may not yet have learned other means of handling their problems. In spite of all the myths prevalent in society, alcohol does not compensate for a lack of self-confidence or a lack of problem-solving ability — it only makes the problems worse.
Parents' Responsibility How can concerned parents counteract the pressure of our alcohol-saturated society? The first step is to examine their own drinking habits. If the important adults in a young person's life use alcohol as a crutch ("What a rough day — I need a drink!"), the young person's attitude toward alcohol will be affected. On the other hand, if the parents set an example of genuine moderation in drink and in other areas of life, subconsciously at least, their children perceive: "My parents don't need alcohol to cope or to have a good time." This knowledge makes it easier for them to look for alternatives that their over-drinking classmates have overlooked.
Parents who use fine alcoholic beverages in moderation to enhance a meal and provide added relaxation are teaching their children responsible use of a substance that is so often misused. The parents' example ought to include such things as how to handle the serving of drinks at a party. The children will see that their parents don't serve only alcoholic beverages or exert pressure on those who prefer not to drink. This example shows concern for others, especially insisting that, as the advertisement reminds the reader, "if you drink don't drive."
What about the use of alcohol by the young? Should parents ban its use entirely? Some specialists suggest that most families should not ban alcohol totally. After all, most parents today don't expect their children to grow up and totally abstain throughout their lives. In that case, why not teach healthy attitudes toward drinking in the home? Instead of making alcohol a kind of forbidden fruit to be gulped secretly or guzzled to feel grownup, families could demonstrate its proper use in a relaxed, open, family mealtime environment showing alcohol is no big deal in itself. Such a setting also teaches that overuse is not funny or something to be admired — rather it shows that moderation is a true sign of maturity.
Western society does not have firm traditions or rules about alcohol consumption, but certain ethnic groups that do have such traditions have drastically fewer problems with alcohol abuse. In some of these groups moderate drinking is quite acceptable in the family and home; overuse is highly frowned upon. The combination of family and group example provides a winning team in preventing alcohol misuse.
Talk It Over A parental example of not overindulging will prevent the all too common feeling among young people that there is a double standard. Adults can drink to excess and take tranquilizers, but if children try drinking or drugs, that's something else. Who hasn't heard an angry parent say, "How can you do this to me?" Maybe the parent should turn the question around.
Besides example, open discussions and instruction are needed to dispel the plethora of misinformation young people receive from their peers, alcohol advertisements, movies and television. The unreal images of the hard-drinking masculine type and the fun, sophisticated people who always have a drink in their hand should be exposed for their shallowness and the results of overdrinking revealed.
You need to learn what your children feel about drinking, what they think about their friends who drink and how they feel about "beer busts" and the like. By talking about the pressures they face, you can strengthen their resolve to handle alcohol responsibly, because the effectiveness of your teaching will ultimately be tested when they are away from your control.
Young people expect their parents to set limits, to be consistent and to show they care. This is especially true in the dangerous area of drinking and driving. Horror stories of accidents from drunk driving don't seem to have great effect in, our jaded society. Teens generally feel, "It can't happen to me." Still, you should make the guidelines on drinking and driving very clear, letting your children know you're always willing to come pick them up rather than have them ever take the chance of riding with a drunk driver.
Probably the most important thing of all is to spend time with your children, helping them to develop social, scholastic and other skills that will prevent some of the causes' of alcohol abuse, such as drinking to forget about shyness, tension, depression or loneliness. Take an interest in their lives (without barging in or giving them the third degree). Make their friends welcome when they come to visit and get to know them in an informal, family activity type of setting.
Your responsible example, knowledge, understanding and love will help your child fight the pressures that induce millions, adult and teen alike, to turn to drink.