Guest Column (12/17/09)

Responsible role modeling for teens

Dec. 17, 2009

By Matthew Bijur

My first wakeup call came when my firstborn son, just learning to use words, pointed to the bottle of beer on the coffee table and said, “Dad!”

As someone who consumes alcohol on occasion, this moment demonstrated that I really needed to remember the importance of seeing my actions through my kid’s eyes. I was around beer enough for my son to have a conditioned response: See beer, think Dad. Assuming he loved me half as much as I him, had I been unwittingly conducting a Pavlovian exercise, imprinting his brain to be flooded with warm fuzzies every time he sees a beer?

Fast-forward several years and I am pulling up to a friend’s summer party with my two boys, now ages 6 and 9, in tow. The first thing I see, tucked amidst the field of parked cars, are three classmates of my 9-year-old, gathered around another boy who has just started “shot gunning” a can of Coke. As the foam sprays all over his face, up his nose and down his shirt, I am only mildly surprised to hear the other three clamoring for who gets to go next. My sons never notice as they race ahead to join other friends just spotted, but I am dumbstruck, and realize I really have to start paying more attention to what goes on in my boys’ lives.

Where do 9-year olds get the idea to shotgun a coke? Did an older kid tell them about it? Was it in a movie they saw? Did they just see one of the adults shotgun a beer at the party?

As a substance abuse counselor, I spend a fair amount of time discussing the importance of modeling healthy and appropriate behavior in front of our children and teenagers. “Healthy and appropriate” are words that conjure up different images for different people, and I tend to respect the values held by my clients to work within their frame of reference. Certainly, I am not perfect, but at a minimum, I have to be aware that my observed actions have consequences. Realizing this, I try to consistently put my best self forward for my kids.

When it comes to discussions about drinking — teenage drinking in particular — people have strong and varied opinions. Most will agree however, that they want to instill the “right values” in their children. They want their teens to survive adolescence and go on to become happy and successful adults without drinking problems. To give yourself the best chance of instilling “the right values,” you have to start with “walking the walk.”

Pay attention to how you use alcohol, and keep your behaviors legal. It is against the law in Vermont for adults to provide alcohol to people under 21 — even in your own home. Throwing a party or allowing your teenager to throw a party where alcohol is furnished to people under 21 makes you liable for anything that might happen to them while under the influence.

If you are going to have a party with teenagers, kids and adults present, and you are serving alcohol, be aware of how the alcohol is featured at the party. Is it the centerpiece? Is the party merely a guise for getting liquored up or is it one part of a larger celebration? Are there options for other beverages and are they as prominently featured? As the host, are you keeping an eye out for how much alcohol is being consumed, how it is being consumed and how people are getting home?

It is not inevitable that all teenagers will drink alcohol. It is inevitable that all teenagers will be paying attention to their parents’ relationship to alcohol. In a world where influence comes from all corners, there is so much that we cannot control in our children’s lives. That is why it is so important to pay attention to the things we can influence, and work hard to make our influence positive.


Matthew Bijur lives in Charlotte. He is a parent and a substance abuse counselor.