At 15 years old I thought I knew it all. I felt older, more responsible and more independent than I actually was. I also thought my relationship with alcohol was a healthy one. Boy, was I wrong. Somewhere in my late 20s I realized I was most definitely an alcoholic. My early 30s were spent trying (unsuccessfully) to control my drinking and at 35 years old, I had my last drink and took myself to rehab for six months of hard work, healing and ultimately, acceptance. I have been sober ever since.
I now have a 15-year-old daughter of my own. The thought of her drinking the way I drank at that age? Well, let’s just say it keeps me up at night. After 20 years of drinking alcoholically and nine years of quality sobriety, I know a thing or two about the highs and lows of drinking. What I don’t always know, however, is how to best discuss alcohol use with my teenagers — but I do it anyway.
When I spoke with Ashley Loeb Blassingame, the co-founder of Lionrock Recovery and a certified addiction counselor, interventionist and mom of two boys, she assured me that I was on the right track. "I think the biggest mistake you can make is to not talk about it at all," she told me, noting that it's important that I'm not “letting only other people and kids shape" what my children think about alcohol.
I know what she’s talking about. Alcohol is glorified regularly in our society. Advertisements and movies make drinking appear glamorous. Kids love to drink out of stemmed glasses and pop the cork on sparkling cider during the holidays. Parents can glorify it, too, joking about their teen coming home drunk or suggesting “a few shots in our coffees to keep us warm and cheery” on the sidelines. The message is loud and clear: Drinking is fun and safe and everyone does it. This is not the message I want my kids to hear, but I don’t always know how to address these comments.
I now have a 15-year-old daughter of my own. The thought of her drinking the way I drank at that age? Well, let’s just say it keeps me up at night.
Blassingame believes these moments are great opportunities to start a conversation with your kids. A simple observation and an open-ended question can get the ball rolling: “I know other parents have been talking about all the super-wonderful aspects of drinking. Would you be open to hearing my take?” She also notes that “too often we spend all our time telling our kids what to think and not enough time asking them what they think.” An observation plus an open-ended question such as, “What are your thoughts on that?” may be all it takes.
"The good and bad news is that there is no perfect formula for parenting because every kid is different," adds Blassingame. Given my history, parenting my children around alcohol use means being oh-so-honest. Detox. Withdrawals. Rehab. Steps. Meetings. Sponsor. AA. My kids know these words well. They know that I fell in love with the feeling of being drunk and that once I found the euphoria of drunkenness it was the only thing I ever looked forward to. They know that I have many happy memories with alcohol but that in the end, it destroyed my life. They know it all because it is all our story, and I hide nothing. They ask questions like, How old were you when you first drank? What did you drink? Did your mom know you were getting drunk on the weekends? And I answer honestly.
I also share the one flag that I missed. The first time I ever drank alcohol, I blacked out. I thought that was normal. Never in my young mind did I think that was a sign of alcoholism. Now I know and I tell my kids that if they blackout at any time, it may be a loud warning that their body processes alcohol differently and that they should tell me or another adult if or when it happens.
I struggle with balance, though. I am fully aware that drinking is a normal and expected behavior for teenagers and young adults. I do not want to rob my children of that experience. I do not want to put so much fear in them that they freeze up in discomfort around alcohol or associate a normal high school or college party with end-stage alcoholism. I haven’t always done a great job with this, but I have started to tell my kids that it’s OK to experiment.
Somehow, it always feels like I am coming at the issue from the extremes. Blassingame encourages parents “to cover the middle ground," which means sharing "stories about people who are not on either end of the spectrum and how alcohol can also cause trouble that is milder, but still problematic.”
She continues, “It is not uncommon for people to say that they thought an alcoholic or addict was a white man under a bridge drinking from a brown paper bag. While that is, certainly, an outcome, it [represents] a small percentage of … alcoholics. Try to introduce lots of different types of scenarios … so that they may be more open to getting help, earlier, if they start to develop an issue.”
The goal for all of us is to inform, educate and create an environment that feels safe and comfortable for our teens. And to remind ourselves to do the best we can.
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