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Alcohol Use and Sexual Violence: Tips for Parents to Reduce Harm

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

By:  Alexis Guzman, Rachel Bring, Karen Soren 

Columbia University Medical Center

Alcohol consumption can have significant effects on brain function, which can diminish our ability to communicate with and understand others, make us unable to respond to threats in our environment, and can occasionally lead to aggressive behavior. These factors may play a role in the association between alcohol consumption and sexual violence. While researchers continue to investigate the connections between alcohol consumption and sexual behavior, it is important for parents to help guide their children in order to reduce harm as they develop and begin to make their own decisions. The following tips can help reduce alcohol misuse, the negative consequences it can be associated with, and the risk of suffering from sexual assault:

  1. Be warm but strict

Providing your children with discipline and support is important in helping them make healthy choices. Talk to them about the negative effects of alcohol use and the importance of avoiding alcohol until they come of age. Encourage them to speak to you openly about any issues that they encounter.  If they make decisions that may not be in their best interests, express your concerns and provide constructive criticism. Make it a conversation.

  1. Be a role model

Modeling responsible drinking behaviors in front of your teens will help them gain a sense of what drinking alcohol should be like. Show them that, while it may be okay to drink occasionally as an adult, there should be limits to the amount of alcohol someone consumes at a given time. If you choose to drink outside your home, have a designated driver that can safely drive you back.

  1. Know your teen’s friends

Parents should be aware of the friends their children are associating themselves with in order to reduce any negative influences. Encourage your teen to set goals for themselves and to strive for success both in school and in any work-related activity. Remind them to surround themselves with people who have similar goals and to distance themselves from those with bad habits. Work with other parents to monitor your teens and their friends.

  1. Discuss your expectations during family events

Family gatherings during the holidays or other events may be a time during which teenagers are around adults using alcohol. Some within your family may feel that offering alcohol to your teenagers in this environment is acceptable and may encourage them to have a drink. It is therefore important to discuss your expectations with your children and family members regarding alcohol consumption early on.

  1. Ask about alcohol’s portrayal in the media

Television shows, music, and social media can profoundly influence how teenagers perceive alcohol and its use. Unfortunately, some of these sources may portray alcohol use as normal behavior that in which “cool” teens should partake. Talk to your children about what they see on and hear from the various sources of media. Ask them whether they encounter portrayed behaviors in their own daily lives and have a conversation about the types of behaviors that may increase risk. For instance, a movie that portrays drunk driving provides a good opportunity to talk about the importance of designated drivers while a song that talks about sex and alcohol can provide an access point to talk about personal boundaries, alcohol tolerance, and consent. 

  1. Be aware of behavior

Changes in your teen’s behavior may be an indication that they may be using alcohol or other substances. These changes can include increasing anger or irritability, lack of motivation, worsening academic performance, and social isolation including distancing themselves from their usual friends or family members. While these may be signs of substance use, they could also indicate other underlying problems, such as depression, which may need further exploration. If you are having trouble understanding what may be going on, try addressing these changes with your children first and consider seeking help from teachers, school counselors, or a healthcare professional as early as possible. 

  1. See your healthcare provider

Seeing a healthcare professional at least yearly allows for an assessment of your teen’s overall health and well-being. Doctors should be screening for mental health conditions, substance use, and any risk-taking behaviors and, if identified, can help determine the best course of action. The visit can also provide your teenager with the opportunity to ask questions and get advice from another adult with reliable health information.

  1. Empower your teen

Encourage your children to be aware of their surroundings, know their limits, and be safe if they choose to drink. Teach them to pour their own drinks or watch them be poured from an unopened container and to always keep an eye on their cup to prevent someone from slipping in an unknown substance or drug. Educate them about the importance of looking out for friends who seem impaired, speaking up if they are concerned, and helping friends to get home safely.

  1. Talk to your teen about consent

Conversations about consent should start early and should be had with both girls and boys alike. Parents can teach younger children about the importance of asking for permission before entering someone else’s personal space. With teens, parents can discuss dating relationships, with an emphasis on feeling empowered to say “no” to anything that makes them uncomfortable and respecting boundaries if they hear “no.”

Check out the DECIMOS NO MÁS campaign to learn more about how parents and adults can engage in meaningful conversations with their children about healthy communication, healthy relationships, and healthy sexuality at wesaynomas.org.

Dr. Karen Soren is a Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center and Director of Adolescent Medicine at the New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. Dr. Alexis Guzman and Dr. Rachel Bring are Adolescent Medicine Fellows at Columbia University Medical Center.

Rebecca De Leon, Communications and Marketing Manager and Pierre R. Berastaín, Assistant Director of Innovation & Engagement at Casa de Esperanza, contributed their expertise around cultural considerations to this piece.

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