“Role Modeling is one of the most powerful tools you have in your parenting tool belt to influence the direction of your children’s character, whatever their age.”
–The Center for Parenting Education
My nine year old is my little shadow. She wants to be wherever I am, sit next to me at every meal, and raid my closet for her latest fashion creation. As frustrating as it can be at times, I am happy to have my little shadow! See, I also have a 13 year old who was socially distancing before it was cool. The truth is that both my little shadow and my distant teen, like all kids, learn and mimic their surroundings.
Well into adulthood, our kiddos closely observe us as we manage our relationships, work, our health, and more. They note how we handle stress and whether we treat others with respect, show patience, act generously, and overall practice what we preach. And they tuck all of this away to use as they navigate their own lives.
Our use of alcohol is no different. As parents, role modeling when it comes to alcohol consumption is key to protecting our children from the risks associated with underage drinking.
Some well-meaning parents believe that letting their children drink at home helps them develop an appropriate relationship with alcohol. Research suggests otherwise— in fact, adolescents who are allowed to drink at home drink more heavily outside of the home. In addition, adolescents whose parents have specific and strict rules against underage drinking (and also drink responsibly themselves) are less likely to drink heavily outside the home.
So whether you have a shadow, or you always live life 6 feet apart, how can you model responsible drinking as a parent? Here are some guidelines:
- Explain to your child why alcohol is for adults only. Let them know their brain will continue to develop well into their twenties, so the legal age of 21 helps protect their health. Communicate your strong stance against drinking before this age, and talk about your consequences for your child.
- Be a role model. If you drink alcohol, be mindful of how much and why you drink and what messages you might be sending to your children. Do not involve your children in adult behaviors. Restrict them from touching, sipping, mixing, or fetching alcohol for adults. It’s always a good idea to have a sober caregiver or parent present.
- Control the context. As adults, we shouldn’t talk about drinking as a way to manage stress around kids — for example, “Today was terrible. I need a drink!” Instead, we should model healthier ways to manage stress like exercising, practicing deep breathing, or talking things over with your partner. We can put words to these actions and make the connection clear for our kids! For example, “Whew, I had such a stressful day! I’m going to go take a walk to calm down and unwind.”
- What if you drank as a teen? If you choose to share that you drank as a teen, be sure to admit that it was a mistake and give examples of negative experiences that resulted or could have resulted from it. If your child asks you this question, a great response is “I did have a drink when I was younger. However, we didn’t know as much as we do now about the risks of alcohol. If I had known then, I would have done things differently. This is why I am talking to you about it. I want you to be safe, healthy, and happy.”
- Practice what you preach: Never drive when you’ve been drinking or get into a vehicle with a driver who is impaired. You wouldn’t want your child to, so don’t do it yourself. Designate a sober driver in advance if you plan to drink.
- If you have alcohol in your home, be sure to secure it away from kids and teens.
To learn more about alcohol and your health, visit the CDC’s FAQ page for alcohol. For more tips and tools for preventing underage drinking or talking to your child about alcohol and other drug use, check out our Parent Up Tools page!
Tiffany (Van Sickle) is a parent of two amazing kiddos, and has been working to prevent youth substance use for 5 years. She currently serves as the Program Director for the Park Hill Community Alliance for Youth (CAFY).