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New from AAAS: A Guide for Parents on Talking to Kids about Alcohol

Science can be a powerful tool for parents and educators seeking to persuade middle-school students not to drink alcohol, says a new book from AAAS.


“Delaying That First Drink: A Parents’ Guide” was produced by the AAAS Science Inside Alcohol Project, which is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It discusses research on the impact of alcohol on the growing body and offers tips on how to talk to kids about drinking.

“Studies show that adolescents who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to have alcohol-related problems later in life,” the book says. “So, convincing your kids to delay that first drink can make a big difference to the rest of their lives.”

Shirley Malcom, the director of Education and Human Resources programs for AAAS, said the new book spotlights the need for parents and others to pay more attention to the risks of pre-teen drinking.

“A lot of people pay attention to high schoolers who drink because they often will combine that with driving,” Malcom said. “What has a lot less visibility is the fact that you have fourth, fifth and sixth graders who drink, leading to later consumption at even higher levels.”

Such drinking can lead to impaired school performance, early sexual activity, and other risky behaviors, Malcom said.

The book is available online at the Science NetLinks site. It is meant to build awareness among parents, caregivers, coaches, and others who interact with kids about the effects that alcohol can have on young bodies, particularly on brain development. It discusses the impact of alcohol on the digestive system, the central nervous system, the heart, the liver, and other organs.

As part of the alcohol project, AAAS conducted an online survey with seventh graders from several middle schools in the northeastern United States. Responses from 143 students showed that they knew very little about the science of alcohol and how it affects the human body. Nearly half of the respondents had no idea how alcohol is derived and nearly one-third could not describe which body systems are affected by the substance.

The book will be available for incorporation into school curricula where appropriate, Malcom said, but it is intended primarily as a practical, plain language guide for parents.

Shirley Malcom

“Parents need all the tools they can get” in talking to their children about alcohol, Malcom said. “You can use moral arguments, you can be preachy and that may not work. You can forbid behaviors and that may not work. This is a way of saying, ‘Let’s look at the actual impact on the body.’”

The guide was written by Aimee Stern of Stern Communications in Silver Spring, Md., with the help of an advisory board of specialists on alcohol use and abuse.

As part of her research for the guide, Stern attended a 2009 meeting of the International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous. The majority of those she met and listened to had started drinking in middle school or the first year in high school. One started drinking vanilla extract from the kitchen cabinet at age 9.

“All parents hope that their child will not be the one who gives in to alcohol and drug abuse,” Stern writes. “But as our children get older and more independent, it’s harder to keep watch and control what they do.”

Young students “generally believe that bad things happen to others and by default minimize the risk inherent in their own choices and behaviors,” said Rebecca Kullback, a licensed clinical social worker and co-founder of Metropolitan Counseling Associates in Bethesda, Md. She said the new guide provides an opportunity to teach them “about the dangers of substance use in a way that is relevant and real.”

Kullback, who was an adviser for the book project, added: “Delaying the first drink has proven to result in lower rates of substance use and abuse in teens. Helping them understand how drinking interferes with things they appreciate and respect—appearance, athletic and academic ability—will provide value to saying ‘no.’”

Parents should starting talking to their kids about alcohol and drug use as early as the fourth grade and continue through middle and high school, the book says. In schools, it notes, information about alcohol is usually taught as part of a larger curriculum dealing with sex, drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases and can receive minimal attention.

Parents also should be aware of external factors, such as advertising, music lyrics, and Internet sites that can influence their children to drink. A recent YouTube search found more than 250,000 videos dealing with alcohol use, the book says, including more than 5,000 dealing with “cool” alcohol drinks.

The guide can be used as a companion to a series of Science Inside Alcohol lessons developed by AAAS or as a stand-alone tool that parents can use in talking with their children. An e-book for students will be available online soon as well.

You may request a printed copy of the book via the comment form here.


Read the book “Delaying That First Drink: A Parents’ Guide.”

Read the companion series of lessons on Science NetLinks.

In a video, Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, talks about the new parents’ guide on alcohol.