As an Elementary Counselor who works with children in grades k-4, one of my key roles is to give parents the tools they’ll need to help their children build strong foundations from which they can make healthy and safe choices that will positively impact their lives. With early teens being the average age of when a child first starts to experiment with alcohol, the elementary years are critical for teaching children good decision making skills as a strategy to help them handle peer pressure they may one day face.
Allow children many opportunities to make choices as well as learn from “little” mistakes! First and foremost, it is critical for children to gain decision making experience by having as many opportunities as possible to make choices on things that are negotiable. (i.e. choose clothing, menu, when to do chores, etc.) Equally important, children need opportunities to make mistakes on insignificant issues with minor consequences early in life so that they can avoid making BIG mistakes later in life. Parents can use the smaller mistakes children make as valuable examples to get them thinking about more significant decisions and consequences they may face in the years ahead.
Don’t wait until a child has made a bad decision to talk to him/her about choice options! Through a proactive not reactive approach, parents should teach their children how to brainstorm “all possible options” complete with favorable and unfavorable consequences PRIOR to them making a decision. Studies show that kids who can see “multiple” options as well as the pros and cons of those options are less likely to make impulsive decisions with harmful consequences and are better able to stand up to negative pressures from peers.
Label children as “problem solvers!” When a child makes a decision, especially one with a favorable outcome, I encourage parents to verbalize to their child, with great enthusiasm, “you are a problem solver!” By labeling this skill, a child can begin to internalize and see him/herself as capable of making good decisions. If the outcome of the choice is unfavorable, parents should stay focused on the process by helping their “problem solver” think through other solutions with more positive outcomes.
Parents should talk, talk, talk to their children about their friends! It is important that parents stay on top of who their children are choosing as friends. Talking frequently and ask questions about the things children are doing with their friends is a good way for parents to monitor whether relationships are healthy or unhealthy. It is also important for parents to listen to conversations and watch for changes in their child’s behaviors / actions when they are around certain friends. Should a child appear to be “acting out of character” or as if they are being “controlled” or “pressured” by others, parents should talk through some “what if” scenarios, complete with modeling or role-playing skills such as speaking up, problem solving and taking a stand to others vs. “following the crowd.” Practicing these skills will help a child feel confident and better prepared when faced with difficult decisions involving peer pressure.
It is my deepest hope that the tips above will help parents arm their children with the skills necessary to make safe and healthy decisions. You can help your child say “NO” to underage drinking. Come up with some short direct replies that they feel comfortable with and can use if faced with pressure to drink. Practice them and #JoinTheConvo!
Alice Weiler , Elementary Counselor , Loyalsock Valley Elementary School, Montoursville, PA