Talking to Your Children About Drinking

The start of the school year reminds me there will soon be questioning fifth-grade student graduates of the county’s DARE or Positive Action programs and newly licensed teenagers. This is the time to consider having the “talk” about drinking and keeping communication lines open.

Years ago, we were enjoying a family dinner out with our then fifth-grade daughter, who spoke loudly and clearly as were ordering wine. “Why do you have to have that wine? Do you need it to feel good? Can’t you be like me and enjoy your food without wine, or should I be drinking wine because if I don’t, I’m not enjoying my meal?” Our daughter had just finished her DARE program and after that harangue we lost our appetites and left the restaurant.

How can one explain to children and teenagers that it is good and even healthy for you to drink wine in moderation, but not good for them, even as 16 year olds taller and stronger than you are, to drink one to two glasses of wine a day? Why can you drink a glass of wine with dinner and be considered legally safe to drive, but they lose their license for driving with any alcohol in their system?

I have thought about this conundrum as a mother, physician, and now as a teacher of teenagers at Santa Barbara Middle School, many of whom attended Montecito Union or Cold Springs Elementary Schools. I even teach my seventh-grade algebra students a unit I created on “The Grapes of Math” as we ferment grape juice and do calculations about the specific gravity, inverse relationship between sugar levels and alcohol levels. It is more engaging and memorable to learn mathematics when it is embedded in real life inquiries and we do live in wine country.

Why Children and Teens Brains Can’t “Handle” Alcohol?

The human brain continues to develop into the early 20s through a process of plasticity (new neuron-connecting networks grow when learning takes place) and pruning (cutting away of neural circuits not needed so they won’t be take up brain nutrients needed by useful networks of brain cells).

The last part of the brain to mature through plasticity and pruning are the prefrontal lobes. These are the centers of “executive functions” such as judgment, delayed gratification for goal achievement, critical analysis, planning, prioritizing, and prediction. Until this brain region matures, young people are not equipped with the brain structure to make well-informed decisions without guidance.

Another problem with young people drinking is the brain’s dopamine-pleasure response. Pleasurable things such as eating, drinking, finding a safe habitat and a mate are positive survival strategies for animals, so generally if the brain seeks activities and locations that have been associated with memories of pleasure, the animal will have a greater chance of surviving.

Along these lines, the human brain has developed a dopamine-pleasure memory. When something is enjoyable, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released and that release is associated with the feeling of pleasure. The brain then seeks activities and sensory input that bring back the pleasure it experienced when dopamine was released (during an exciting bike ride or with the high of alcohol). The problem is, without the mature executive functions, the teen brain seeks pleasure without the ability to judge risk.

So, how can we talk to our children about the dangers of alcohol while continuing to enjoy our wine? If your children know you are consistent about the boundaries you set, they will be consistent in respecting those boundaries when it comes to drinking. Talking with your children about what wine and spirits are, what they do, and why they are enjoyable in moderation, especially with meals, will help de-mystify alcohol and take it out of the category of rebellious behaviors.

If you have this part of the talk before they participate in their fifth-grade DARE program, your child will not be confused by what they hear in that program. DARE and Positive Action programs curriculum do not include instruction about the health benefits of moderate wine drinking for adults. It is important that children have a chance to discuss accurate and balanced information about alcohol with you before they participate in the program. This will keep them from needless worry about you being an “alcoholic” because you enjoy wine with dinner.

Even better than talking the talk is walking the walk. When your children see you and other adults drinking sensibly, they are more likely to respect and follow that behavior than if they see adults, in your home or at gatherings they attend with you, drinking too much, doing dangerous things, or acting inappropriately – especially if the antics of these inebriated adults are garnering laughs and encouragement from the other adults.

Demonizing alcohol is counter productive

An additional option is to consider the approach to wine that is predominant in many Western European countries. In these countries many older children are introduced to wine mixed with water at meals in the convivial company of family or friends. The philosophy of such an approach is that if children are allowed tastes of wine, the idea of alcohol having the allure of a forbidden fruit is removed and children grow up understanding the pleasures of drinking lightly, with meals, by example and without excess.