Here's how parents can prevent their teens from drinking too much
Letting kids try small amounts of alcohol at home to learn moderation may backfire, substance-use experts say
With experts warning of the health risks of consuming alcohol, parents searching for strategies to keep their teenagers from drinking excessively or at all have lots of options, according to a leading Canadian addiction specialist.
And because there's a genetic component to alcoholism and substance-use disorder, this can be an important and reassuring message for families to hear.
"For some people it feels like the deck is stacked against them…. But there's actually a lot people can do," said Dr. Alexander Caudarella, CEO of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, the organization that led the initiative to update Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.
"These might be things like if you can have a good relationship in your family, if you can have good communication, if you're going to school and succeeding in school, if you have a good friend group around you, but also things like eating well, [and] sleeping well."
Not everyone who has the genetic predisposition for developing an addiction will end up with one, he said.
But having a history of alcoholism in your family does increase your chances of passing it on to your children.
What are the risk factors for alcoholism and substance use disorder?
That's something Jessica Lahey worried about with her own kids, who were 9 and 14 when she realized she was an alcoholic and stopped drinking in 2013.
"My first thought when I got sober was, OK, well, I'm the child of an alcoholic who was the child of an alcoholic … and then, same thing on my husband's side of the family. And so immediately, I'm like, oh my gosh, how do I make this stop with me?" she said.
Lahey, a U.S.-based journalist and educator, set out to answer this question in her book The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.
"Genetics is about 50 to 60 per cent of the risk picture," she said.
But it's also environmental factors such as the death of a parent, a family member being incarcerated, physical or sexual abuse, or divorce or separation, she said.
"We're really talking about toxic stress, not like normal everyday stress, but toxic, ongoing chronic stress that causes cortisol levels to go up and just causes our bodies to go into lock into that sort of disaster mode for longer periods of time," said Lahey.
While parents can't shield their children from all forms of adversity, therapy, for example, can lessen the impact of that stress, she said.
And there are other strategies that families can use to reduce the chances a teenager will develop a drinking problem.
Don't allow underage drinking in the home
One tip she had for parents is to not allow any underage drinking at home.
"We know that parents that have a consistent and clear message of 'no, not until it's legal for you' ... have kids with far lower rates of substance-use disorder than parents who have a permissive stance on alcohol consumption or drug consumption under age."
She also said that parents who give their children sips of beer or wine to teach them healthy drinking habits at an early age are on the wrong track.
And she's not alone in this stance.
Dr. Caudarella said delaying that first drink might be a good idea, particularly if someone has a family history of substance-use disorder.
"If somebody would have started at the age of 15 and instead they try for the first time at the age of 17, their risk of developing problems with that is already significantly lower," he said.
But keeping teenagers away from alcohol is not as simple as telling them not to drink.
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Make it a 'morally neutral topic'
In fact, according to registered psychotherapist Louise Gleeson, that strategy might backfire.
Gleeson is the mother of four children between the ages of 13 and 21.
She doesn't drink and hasn't for more than a decade, but she said she doesn't impose any negative feelings she might have about alcohol on her kids.
Instead she said, it's important for parents not to bring their own judgments about alcohol or drugs to the table.
Make it a "morally neutral topic," otherwise you are going to "close that door so hard," she said.
"We risk having our children have the perception about themselves, that if they choose to engage or get curious about using substances, they are viewed by their own parents as being bad. And when that happens, in order to keep the attachment with their parent, they will keep it secret."
And you want your teenagers to be able to turn to you when their friends are doing things that make them uncomfortable or unsafe, she said.
Communication is key
Parenting skills like the ones Gleeson described may be key to helping families mitigate the risk that young people will develop a problem with alcohol or drugs, said Dr. Caudarella.
In fact, some of the best addiction prevention strategies don't even involve talking about substances.
For example, there are programs that take children as young as seven, along with their parents, and teach them communication skills.
"When they look 10 years later, there can be as much as a 50 per cent reduction of the number of people initiated substance use by the time they're Grade 12."
Limiting kids' exposure to alcohol advertising is also a good idea, he said.
Don't worry about ADHD meds
Dr. Caudarella says parents of kids who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder often ask him if they should be especially concerned about their kids' risk.
"People come in and say 'you know what, my family is at risk of having substance use disorder issues. Is it safe for my kid to be on ADHD medications?" he said.
They worry that taking the stimulants are often prescribed for the disorder could lead to addiction.
But he said the opposite is true.
"What we know is that the kids who are properly diagnosed with ADHD and were put on those medications have a much less likely future of developing substance use disorders. And that's because those medications are really effective at helping them do better in school and thrive and succeed."
Ultimately, Caudarella said, the parents who know they have a family history of alcoholism and are aware of the risks are in the best position to deal with them head on.
"I actually think those kinds of parents can make the best parents because they're so conscientious and careful about it."