Thursday, August 28, 2014

To Sip or Not to Sip: New Pitt Study Looks at Ramifications of Allowing Kids to Taste Alcohol

A parent enjoying an alcoholic drink might find his or her young child to be curious about what’s in that bottle or glass. It raises the question: Should the parent offer the child just a taste? Will it remove the temptation or encourage use or even abuse?
University of Pittsburgh researcher John E. Donovan said previous research findings prompt his recommendation against parents’ offering children a taste of alcohol. Even if research, so far, shows no harm from only a taste, it also has shown no benefit. So why encourage alcohol consumption?
His current study published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research sought to identify factors that prompt children to taste or sip alcohol at ages as young as 8 or 10.
Research already has identified two factors predicting whether a 12-year-old child has tasted alcohol — the child’s attitude toward giving it a try and a family environment supportive of alcohol use.
But the study led by Mr. Donovan, a Ph.D. and associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Pitt, and co-written by Brooke S.G. Molina of Pitt’s departments of psychiatry and psychology, found that parental approval more so than the child’s psychological proneness is key to whether children 8 or 10 years old already have tasted alcohol.
“Children who sipped alcohol before age 12 reported that their parents were more approving of a child sipping or tasting alcohol and more likely to be current drinkers“ than those yet to have a sip,” he said. Parents’ comments confirmed that conclusion.
The study involving 452 children (238 girls and 214 boys 8 or 10 years old), and their families from Allegheny County, sought to identify factors that predict whether a child will start to sip or taste alcohol before age 12. One key finding is “that sipping during childhood is not itself a problem behavior, like delinquent behavior or drug use,” Mr. Donovan said.
A previous study he conducted determined that nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of 12-year-olds have at least tasted alcohol. Children often have their first taste of alcohol during family gatherings or celebrations, he said. Parents in the study, even those regularly drinking in the presence of their children, did not roundly approve of offering their children a taste. But some were less opposed to it.
“We don’t really know yet whether childhood sipping or tasting [of alcohol] has any future negative consequences,” he said. “But our previous research found that sipping or tasting alcohol by age 10 was significantly related to early-onset drinking — that is, having more than a sip or a taste before age 15.”
Previous research also found early-onset drinking, as opposed to just tasting, to be associated with numerous negative outcomes for adolescents and young adults, including alcohol abuse and dependence, illicit drug use, prescription drug misuse, delinquent behavior, risky sexual behavior, motor vehicle crashes and job problems, among others. But it’s not yet known whether just a taste or sip can lead to early consumption of alcohol and later negative outcomes.
But that information could eventually be drawn from already gathered information from Mr. Donovan’s ongoing longitudinal study, which is one that follows the same participants through time. “I don’t know whether sipping or offering a sip or taste can have any consequences later on,” he said. “So we shouldn’t assume there is no problem. You have to make your own decision, but it suggests that it may be a problem, and they shouldn’t have a taste.”
In a published reaction to the study, Robert A. Zucker, of the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center, said it would be “a significant mistake to misinterpret the study” as encouragement that early introduction of alcohol can prevent future problems.
“The fact that the majority of early sippers are not problem children, and that the majority of them do not go on to early regular use, is not evidence supporting the early introduction of drinking with the family as protective. It’s long-term effects remain still to be charted.”

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Want to keep your new middle-schooler out of trouble? Then let them take risks.

From the Washington Posts On Parenting feature

 August 20

Middle school gets a bad rap.

Ask parents of graduating elementary-schoolers how they feel about their kids moving up, and you’ll be surprised how many of their responses fall into the “totally dreading it” end of the anticipation spectrum.

What’s so scary about middle school anyway? I mean, besides hormones, attitudes, peer pressure, emerging sexuality, defiance, exposure to drugs and alcohol… Um, okay. I get it. Middle school can be scary. But there is a lot to love about middle school, too. One of my favorites is that middle school can offer a buffet of new experiences, and kids should try them all. (Scratch that: No drugs and sex. But they should try a lot. )

Parents worry too much when their kids start listening to hard-core rap, or dyeing their hair strange colors, or making unlikely new friends. Instead, middle school should be seen as an important time to let kids begin to develop their identities apart from their parents. Who a child will become is not a foregone conclusion, and without trying a lot of new things, how can a young person truly know who she is? She has to test some limits. While it can be strange to see this happening, know that it’s happening for good reason.

Your kid doesn’t just want to take risks. She needs to take risks.

At around the age of 11, kids’ brains start undergoing some amazing, albeit messy, reorganization. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control, critical thinking and evaluating other people’s emotions (to name just a few of its important jobs) goes on vacation during the teen years. That’s when the amygdala, or emotional center of the brain, kindly takes over the decision-making department. This makes perfect sense when you consider how impulsive, reactive and dramatic middle-schoolers can be.

It’s not a fluke that kids become more impulsive in middle school. As tweens prepare to take their first big steps on the path toward independent thoughts and behavior, the adolescent brain can’t be dedicated to worrying about risk. Becoming an independent adult, after all, requires a lot of bravery, something impulse control tends to squelch. Put plainly, if your kid’s prefrontal cortex were highly functioning throughout adolescence, she would never consider leaving the comfort of home for college. Why should she take that risk when everything she needs to survive is at her fingertips under your roof?

Let them check the risk box

Understanding why middle-schoolers are driven toward risk-taking is helpful, but knowing how to keep them safe is even better. While a middle-schooler’s brain can’t tell the difference between a good risk and a bad risk, the good news is that it’s equally satisfied by both. You’ve probably heard that kids who play sports are less likely to engage in negative risky behavior. That is not because they’re too busy to find time to misbehave. (Note: This is not a call to sign your child up for every after school activity you can find. Being busy doesn’t satisfy the adolescent need to take risks. ) Instead, that’s because athletes are already taking risks on the field, so they’ve checked that box. And don’t fret if your kid isn’t a jock. Auditioning for a play, joining a new club, starting a baby-sitting business, or doing anything else that takes a kid out of his comfort zone will fulfill that risk-taking drive.

Often, parents think middle school is the time to clamp down and impose lots of limits, because they are fearful of their child making dangerous and impulsive decisions. Certainly, limits are appropriate, but they should be balanced with lots of encouragement to try new things. Yes, this will get messy. Switching friends, changing activities, dressing in all black, and hopping from obsession to obsession will make waves, leaving people, time and money in the wake. With any risk, good or bad, there are challenges. But consider the alternative. Kids who don’t belly up to the buffet and try new things, new friends, new styles and new behaviors may be compelled to try something worse. Or at the very least, they may get left behind by their peers, or miss getting a foothold in a fun new activity.

You can’t always protect them, but you can comfort them.

When my daughter was in fifth grade she auditioned for the school talent show. Though she had been an adorable performer during her early elementary years, this time I was nervous. By fifth grade, she had hit her awkward phase pretty hard. Her singing voice, on which she prided herself for years, had changed from cute and clear to a strangled, nasally something. “If she sings,” I thought, “she will mortify herself and people will tease her relentlessly.”

I so badly wanted to protect her from taking a risk that might get her ostracized, and I debated with myself for days over whether I should discourage her in order to protect her. And then it occurred to me, “Either way, she’ll be hurt. Don’t let it be by me.” Kids would tease, for this or for something else later on, and I wanted to always be her champion. Turns out, she did audition, she made the cut and both her nerves and the terrible cafeteria acoustics kindly muffled her voice enough that the performance was pretty unmemorable – in a good way. She has only happy memories of this event. I am so glad I kept my mouth shut.

So, if you and your tween are staring down the reality of life in middle school, start welcoming the changes coming your way, and not dreading them. Let them sing. Let them go Goth. Let them wear shorts all winter long. They’re just trying to figure out who they are, and that’s hard work. They’ll be grateful you’re by their side when all that work is done.

Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Her web site is


Monday, August 18, 2014

From the NYT: When Sports and Family Time Conflict, Speak Up

Try saying this out loud: “Family and academics are more important than sports, until sports conflict, then sports win.”
I don’t personally like the way that sounds — but yes, I’ve had children skip school, and left my parents to be driven to the bus by a friend after a holiday visit, for hockey tournaments. I love my children, and they love hockey, and that sometimes leaves me making choices that are hard to square with what I say are my priorities.
In “There’s No Off in This Season,” my colleague Bruce Feiler describes how “Friday Night Lights” have become Every Night Lights, with team sports the behemoth that’s consuming American childhood. The quote above paraphrases James Emery White, the pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., who has spoken out widely on the dangers of sports eclipsing family life. “Parents are so insecure,” he is quoted as saying, “they feel like whatever other parents are doing, they have to do. If it’s soccer, then my kid has to play soccer. We have elevated sports into a cultural religion. The fact that it clashes with family life is not surprising.”
Those clashes are often infuriating (read the article for more on missed vacations and the near-complete loss of August as part of summer), yet, Bruce writes, few parents are willing to stand up to coaches and reclaim lost weekends and break time if it means risking their child’s place on the team.
It will take more than a few parents to change the culture that allows coaches to make Augusts and Saturdays mandatory. Even for less intense towns, schools and sports, the creep of practice, tournament and game time is hard to resist. The tournaments I’ve allowed my children to miss school for weren’t “mandatory” in any sense of the word. There would have been no individual repercussions for them had they missed them — but because of the size of their teams, their absence could mean the team can’t play, or loses, in part, because they just didn’t have the numbers to keep up. I might have sent the league a message about the importance of academics over sports, but I would also be sending my children a message about letting down a team I’d allowed them to commit to. Suddenly, that simple-seeming dichotomy — academics or sports — isn’t so simple.
Just the fact that games, tournaments, tryouts or practices can be, and are, regularly scheduled during time that is traditionally family time or indisputably school time forces choices parents and students shouldn’t have to make. If you would like to see changes in the sports your family participates in, now, as things are getting organized for the school year, may be the time to speak up at introductory meetings or even attend early meetings of league boards or town recreational programs; for fall sports, now is the time to figure out when and how you can work for changes next year.
Commonly, the people who volunteer to organize leagues and teams are those for whom a sport is a passion and therefore a priority. That may feel as if it makes conflict inevitable, but any change starts with taking the time and making the effort to speak up before the coach who’s genuinely excited to spend spring break taking the team to a tournament has circled the dates on the calendar, and with appreciating that enthusiasm even while looking for a happy medium.
No practice or game time will work for every child, but that shouldn’t mean families should have to make any time work.