Unspoken Messages

Modeling Behavior Is Best Way to Shape It


Written by:  Sharon DeEsch, MA, LPC, MAC, CCJP

Q. I’m worried that my 4-year-old will turn out to be like so many teens I hear about today – drinking or taking drugs At what age should I start talking to him about these things?

A. I don’t believe there is a specific age to begin to talk about alcohol and other drugs. However, I do believe that we can teach and guide our children at any age about the unspoken messages they see us act out when it relates to the use, abuse or misuse of alcohol and other drugs. Children are very bright and see a lot more than we sometimes recognize. Their brains are continuing to develop and come to conclusions sometime that might or might not be accurate. Recent research states that because of this lack of brain development, the legal age limit to drink alcohol was moved from 18 to 21 years of age. We now know that if individuals wait until age 21, they reduce their risk of addiction to 10 percent — 60 percent become addicted when they start drinking or using drugs at age 14. That is an excellent reason to teach and practice no underage drinking of alcohol for any reason.

The early onset of usage is greatly impacted by family influence. I have practiced for more than 24 years, listening for unspoken messages in the field of addiction. In most cases, it is not what someone says but what they do that matters most. For example, if a child learns that he doesn’t ask for money to go to the corner market until Mom or Dad has had their third glass of wine, then the child hears the unspoken message “I need to wind down from my hard day at work with a liquid drink before I can cope with any of your issues.”

Last week I was discussing writing this article with a friend of mine who has been working with chemically dependent adolescents for the past 20 years. His response, summarized, was to say to the parents, “Teach your children how to value themselves from within.” We both agree that in our present day society so much of our good feelings come from the outside: it’s called external locus of control — with bikes, Game boys, cars, toys, designer clothes, cell phones, iPods, etc., we lose sight of how to feel good about just being a good person. The stuff becomes No. 1 and the person falls short — what other people think about them becomes more important than what they think about themselves. Everyone cannot keep up and sooner or later will judge their insides as less-than. It is no wonder that alcohol and other drugs go “Yahoo” in their brain. They are pleasurable, predictable and do for the person what they want them to do — change the way they feel.

It is imperative to acknowledge and praise the child’s good feelings from within by showing them how. Let them see you return the grocery cart in the appropriate place, let them watch you helping an older person with their groceries without being asked, let them go with you to volunteer at a shelter to serve a holiday dinner, teach them to hold a door, or let them see you pick up a piece of trash anywhere and throw it away.

Children will watch you consume alcohol and they will watch your response to the drink. If they see you change personalities, get funnier, happier, more fun to be around or possibly angrier, then what is the message you are sending? It is, may I suggest, that if I take this drink, (external focus), IT, is doing for me what I am not doing for myself. Coping skills are taught by your behavior.

The next time you have a drink of alcohol in front of your children, ask yourself, “What is the message I am sending to my child right now?” Am I telling them I have a true investment in drinking? Do I let them know by my behavior that it is OK to have a drink, but it is not OK to get drunk? Do I show them that the only tools I have in my bag of coping skills is to have a drink of alcohol? They will make their own interpretations and it is always good to talk about this with them. Just ask them some open-ended questions. This way, you can listen and then you can see what you are teaching by your behavior.


Sharon DeEsch, MA, LPC, MAC, CCJP, is a counselor with Moses Cone Behavioral Health Center, Chemical Dependency Intensive Outpatient Program.

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