Young kids learn by watching when it comes to alcohol

The winter holidays are here and it is time to enjoy the company of family, friends and co-workers. But New Year’s holiday gatherings this week will involve the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

Children watch their parents’ drinking behavior and get messages about alcohol use and drinking styles. It is important for parents to model appropriate drinking habits as kids tend to replicate patterns of drinking learned at home.

Research studies have found that even though teens go through periods when they rebel against parental values, most of these teens end up, as adults, holding beliefs very similar to their parents.

Given the likelihood that your children will be a part of the New Year’s celebrations held this week, it is a good time to think about what role alcohol plays in your family and what messages you want your children to learn about drinking.

Messages that kids pick up from their parents’ behavior include:

The idea that drinking is an accepted way to cope with emotions such as stress, anxiety, anger and depression. Comments such as, “What a rotten day I’ve had — I could really use a drink,” promote this idea.

The belief that alcohol is an easy, effective and sometimes necessary way to have fun and fit in at a social gathering through “Happy Hour” drinking when adults are able to shift from everyday moods into a state of happiness or sociability after a few drinks.

The mixed messages that drinking and driving on occasion is OK and laws can be dismissed or selectively obeyed by adults who drink at a social event and then drive home.

The mixed message, “Do as I say, not as I do,” can fall on deaf ears when parents regularly abuse alcohol in the presence of teens. For young children, heavy drinking and drunken behavior can be confusing and scary.

Tips on how to have holiday gatherings with appropriate alcohol use:

If you choose to serve alcohol at your event, consider hiring a bartender or designate a responsible adult to mix drinks for your guests and monitor for signs of overindulgence.

Avoid having an open, unattended bar where teens can have easy access to alcohol.

Avoid making alcohol the main focus of the social event. Entertain guests with music, games and lively conversation.

Do not push drinks on your guests. Serve additional alcoholic drinks only upon request.

Offer plenty of filling foods to mitigate the effects of alcohol.

Have several nonalcoholic drink options for guests to choose from.

Avoid having your children serve alcoholic drinks to guests. Instead, let your children help prepare and serve nonalcoholic drinks such as cider, sparkling water, soda and fruit punch.

Stop serving alcohol at least an hour before the end of the party — serve nonalcoholic drinks and desserts at this time.

Provide guests who may be “tipsy” with alternatives to driving such as offering to drive the person home yourself, calling a taxi or asking another guest to give a ride home.

Consider taking alcohol off your wish list and avoid giving bottles of wine or hard liquor as gifts to friends and family.

Be clear with “twenty-something” relatives that it is not OK to provide alcohol to your minor children.

Throw away partially consumed alcoholic drinks. Young children love to imitate adults. If they have access to leftover beverages, they may end up getting sick. Young children are more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning due to their lower body weight.

It is never too late to curb excessive drinking. Not only will you benefit, but your family and children will benefit as well. If you have concerns about alcohol abuse for yourself or a family member, contact Chris Harnish.

Chris Harnish is an Adolescent Substance Abuse Specialist for Mercer Island Youth and Family Services and can be reached at 236-3363, 236-3525. For information about MIYFS counseling services, contact Gayle Erickson, clinical supervisor, 236-3525.

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