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DHS news release

April 9, 2004

This guest opinion is by Robert E. Nikkel, MSW, administrator of the Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Oregon Department of Human Services. For a photograph of Nikkel, contact Patricia Feeny at (503) 945-6955 or E-mail patricia.feeny@state.or.us

Early parental intervention can curtail underage drinking

Length: 579 words

When I was in college, I had this great professor whom I really I admired. He had a saying that went "Values are caught, not taught."

With apologies to my former teacher, I think the mantra only partially applies to our children and the use of alcohol. Alcohol use among Oregon’s youth is on the rise, according to a state survey of more than 18,000 students.

Teaching children and teens about the dangers of alcohol use does include some talking. It’s not always an easy conversation to begin but the payoffs of early parental intervention are enormous.

As your children progress through the school years, dealing with peer pressure, academic stress and social challenges, you will have already established a sense of values to help them when faced with the tough decisions and temptations.

Even years down the road when your children are not under your roof 24 hours, the messages you instill in them early on will influence their choices later.

As a parent, I feel fortunate that my children had a good set of values before they left for college. I know that there are some individuals who will never touch alcohol. Others, however, may find themselves going down a path they know is not right for them. Again, it is early, consistent and frequent modeling and messaging that will get them back on course.

You don’t need a formal forum to get the discussion going. Find something that you and your child enjoy doing together – jogging, rollerblading, cycling. Talking with them during these relaxed times will not only help to keep the lines of communication open, but studies also show that children who have close bonds to their families are less likely to use alcohol.

Research shows that children who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics than those who start at 21. Don’t wait until your children are in junior high school to talk to them about the dangers of alcohol. Set the rules early.

  • Be an example: If you have a rule about drunk driving, and you should, make sure not to drive when you've been drinking or get in a car with someone who has. Children notice when their parents say one thing and do another.

  • Recognize good behavior: Emphasize the things your children do right instead of focusing on what's wrong. When parents are quicker to praise than to criticize, children learn to feel good about themselves, and they develop the self-confidence to trust their own judgment.

  • Be specific: Tell your children the rule and what behavior you expect. For example, you could say, "The law says that you have to be 21 to drink. Our family follows the law."

  • Develop consequences: If your children are old enough, they can help suggest appropriate and reasonable consequences. It may help to write up a list of rules and consequences for breaking each rule.

  • Be consistent: Be sure your children understand that the rules are maintained at all times, and that the rules hold true even at other people's houses. Tell your children that if they are at a party where alcohol or illegal drugs are being used, they can call you for a ride home.
That college professor who talked about values being "caught, not taught" was right about a lot of things. But the harmful lifetime consequences of alcohol are so great, we parents have to ensure our kids are "taught."

Robert E. Nikkel, MSW, is the administrator of the Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Oregon Department of Human Services.