There are specific behaviors that have serious repercussions on a social level when modeled to your child. We are speaking especially of substance abuse. Drug addiction is a serious problem that affects children at all socioeconomic levels. The one most consistent cause of drug addiction or substance abuse of any kind by children is the model parents provide. Drinking is certainly one way parents influence their children. Parents who smoke can expect their children to try cigarettes by as young as age six, when parental behaviors have become internalized. The same is true of most other addictive habits.
This may ask a great deal of you, to become aware of your habits and, in some cases, change your lifestyle. However, this is what being an effective role model entails. Although many parents blame a child’s bad habits on his friends, it is behavior that is modeled and sanctioned in the home that may actually lead a child to become involved in negative behavior outside of the family. This does not mean that in every family where the parents drink alcohol there will be a substance abuse problem. Engaging in any kind of behavior, be it a cocktail before dinner or a cigarette after, however, does suggest to the child that the behavior is OK.
Frank, a young high school senior, was referred to therapy because his teachers had noticed that he was often absent from school and often appeared to be in ill health. In therapy Frank admitted that he was drinking up to three six-packs of beer even on school nights. He had watched his father sit in front of the television night after night and drink a six-pack of beer by himself. He had always admired his father for consuming a six-pack at one sitting and set out to imitate the behavior as proof of his own self-worth. The problem was complicated by the fact that his father often bragged about his consumption to his son, even though Frank’s mother tried to encourage her son to wait until he was older before he started drinking. Frank was unaware that each beer he drank contained one ounce of alcohol, which meant that a six-pack was equivalent to almost half a pint of vodka or whiskey. Frank, and his father-were also unaware that alcohol kills the male hormone testosterone.
Frank’s father’s message to his son was that beer drinking is basically harmless and something to be proud of. In therapy Frank was encouraged to identify aspects about himself that he felt good about and other aspects of his father’s behavior that he could model and excel at in order to win his father’s affection and admiration.
It is interesting to note that such potentially negative behavior often falls along sexual lines. Daughters will follow their mothers lead, sons their father’s. It is still less likely today for women to drink as much as men. Although this is changing somewhat, there remains in our culture a masculine mystique about being able to consume large quantities of alcohol. Young adolescent girls may not refuse a single beer at a party, but it is less likely that they will drink, as is not uncommon for boys of the same age, an entire six-pack in an evening.
Depending on your community and the values of your child’s peer groups, as well as the availability of alcohol in the home, a child may experiment with drinking as early as age six or eight, especially if he is encouraged to do so by his peers. It is important to note, however, that if you have been attentive to your child, have modeled good and reasonable behavior, and have acted as a concerned and caring individual, you will be one step ahead of the game when your child is faced with such temptations.
It is also important to note that not every child who experiments with drugs or alcohol will become a substance abuser or even a regular user. In fact, substance abuse, drugs, alcohol, or even cigarettes, can be a sign that your child is having role problems, and you are advised to seek professional help.
We are not advocating that you give up drinking, but we are suggesting that you become aware of yourself and your habits, especially when your child is present. You may attempt to make verbal directions contrary to your actions, “Don’t drink beer; it’s not good for you.” But your child will do what you do, rather than as you say. Keep liquor locked up, as young children are naturally curious and will experiment with whatever is available to them. Even if you keep liquor on hand only for company, you should be sure to take precautions. There is a difference between total abstinence and setting an example of moderation. If a father drinks beer in his child’s presence, he might want to limit himself to one or two beers in the course of a meal or a television program. If a mother is in the habit of taking a martini or a glass of wine when she gets home from work each day, she should be sure that it doesn’t interfere with the family. Families who drink wine with meals might take the time to explain to their children why wine is a beverage to be enjoyed with food.
Parents who use tranquilizers and other drugs are wise to keep drugs out of the reach of children. A child’s natural curiosity knows no danger; he will want to try what he sees you doing. If you are on medication, avoid broadcasting this to your child. Don’t exclaim in front of your child, “Oh, I need my tranquilizers! How could I get through the day without them?” Or in talking to your spouse in front of your child, don’t discuss the prescribed medication you may be taking, complaining, “I took my sleeping pill last night and it didn’t work; I’ll have to take two tonight.” This goes for all medication, including prescription drugs, such as antibiotics, and over-the-counter medicine, such as aspirin. Our culture is drug-dependent on many levels, and a child need not necessarily observe you using an illegal drug to think that drug use is fine. An atmosphere of pill popping in the home may induce the child to experiment. Thus if for some reason you find it necessary to take medication, make it a private affair and keep all medicine out of the reach of your child.