Think 8 is too young to start talking to kids about alcohol? It’s not and please don’t make the mistake of thinking it is, said Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She wishes she had talked to her son earlier.

In a new survey released by MADD and Nationwide Insurance, about one-third of parents start talking about alcohol when their children are 14 to 18 years old, already in high school. But in fact, about 30 percent of 8th graders have already tried alcohol. Kids start to develop perceptions about alcohol as young as 2nd and 3rd grades, and so that’s the time to start having the conversations.

Sheehey-Church’s son, Dustin, died in 2004 when he was 18 as a result of riding in a car with a friend who was drunk and drugged. The teens were out to get pizza when the car hit an embankment and landed in a river. Dustin drowned trying to get out of the car.

When we discussed what stood out about the survey, Sheehey-Church said her heart started beating like crazy. She feels like she waited too long to talk to Dustin. He was about 14 years old when they first talked about alcohol and underage drinking. “He was downstairs doing homework and came upstairs and I said let’s sit here on the floor and you tell me about your day,” she recalled. “We started talking about choices and consequences…. It was pretty apparent that he already knew a little more than I did. I walked away saying ‘I should have been having this conversation long ago.'”

Alcohol is still the drug of choice for youth. And parents often forget about that, warning them not to text and drive, to stay away from drugs, to be careful in many other ways. Out of eight “social harms” parents said they were most concerned about, alcohol ranked seventh. But alcohol is often involved in the issues that rank above it, such as unplanned pregnancy, car accidents or sexual assault.

If you think that what you say is falling on deaf ears, it’s not. “For whatever reason, parents think they lose influence over kids by age 16, but research is pretty clear… that kids are still most influenced by parents through age 21 about things like alcohol and texting,” said Bill Windsor, MADD Board Chair and Nationwide associate vice president of consumer safety.

In fact, I just had a talk this week with Kenneth R. Ginsburg, author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ book “Raising Kids to Thrive.” Throughout the book, he shares (along with his two teen daughters) advice for parents from teens. One that stood out to me, and to him: “My mom always says, ‘You are who you hang with,’ ‘You are what you eat,’ etc. She says it so much that those sayings pop into my head all the time. My advice is for parents to say your sayings; know I listen, even though you think I don’t.'” –Anna, age 16, Alaska

Don’t know how to get talking? MADD has a new handbook you can download  and is designating April 21st a day to really talk with your kids about underage drinking. Get to it.

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