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The Alcohol Discussion: Talking to Your Teens Without Sending Mixed Messages

From the minute their children arrive, most parents have a strong instinct to protect them and keep them safe. So, when those children become teenagers, they’re likely to worry about the dangers of alcohol.

What can you do to protect your kids? How do you answer their questions and avoid sending mixed messages?

The good news is that what you say and do makes a significant difference. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that kids who learn about the dangers of alcohol and drug use through conversations with their parents are actually 50 percent less likely to use them.1 It’s important not only to talk to your kids, but to listen to them and try to hear both what they’re saying directly, and what they may be saying in more subtle ways. It’s also important to think through the answers to questions they may ask, or are likely to have, even if they don’t voice them.

Some of the questions your kids may want or need to have answered include the following:

What do you think about underage drinking?
This may not be a question that your kids ask you directly, but it’s important for them to know your views. In one study, researchers asked parents about their attitude on teen drinking, and then asked their kids what they thought their parents’ attitude was. Teens tended to believe that their parents approved of drinking much more than they actually did, and their perception affected their behavior.2

Did you drink when you were my age?
Parents who can answer “no” to this question don’t tend to have trouble responding to it. Others address the question in various ways. Psychologist John Duffy believes in taking age into account. He notes that younger kids may see passive permission in a parent’s story. “At 11, [it’s] not a good idea to share history. At 18 or 19, it might be very helpful,” he explains.3

If directly asked, a parent may choose to answer a younger child by saying, “I’d rather not talk about my choices until you’re a little older, but you know how I feel about underage drinking now.” If you decide your kids are old enough to hear your history, make sure not to glamorize it. Emphasize that it was risky and that the risks are more clearly understood now than they were when you were younger. You might want to give an example of a negative consequence that occurred because of your behavior.

Why is it OK for you to drink, but not me?
Kids are very sensitive to any signs of perceived hypocrisy, so it’s important to let them know that there’s a logical, scientific reason why drinking is more problematic for teens than for adults. Because their brains are still developing, the effects of alcohol are more severe and long-lasting. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World notes that when adolescents and young adults drink, it can lead to lifelong damage in the brain, affecting memory, coordination and motor skills. They also note that early drinking significantly raises the risk of addiction. People who begin drinking before they turn 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than those who wait to begin until age 21.4

Can I drink at home?
Sometimes kids or parents believe that the risks of alcohol can be mitigated by letting kids drink at home, under supervision. Research shows, however, that it doesn’t prevent them from drinking elsewhere. In fact, it increases the risk for continued drinking and the development of problem drinking later.5

What do I do if someone offers me a drink?
It’s wise to help your kids think through, or even role play, possible responses when they’re offered alcohol and to let them know you’ll come and pick them up if they feel uncomfortable at any time. Some parents and kids come up with a code word or phrase to use if speaking or texting freely is difficult.

How can I drink safely?
Your kids may not ask you this, but it’s important information for them to have, and a tricky subject for parents to address without implying a degree of approval. One way to address it is to approach it from the perspective of saying, “You might need this information to help your friends at some point.” It’s also possible to approach it by saying that you know your kids may drink when they turn 21, and you’d like them to have information they need to drink responsibly then.

Here are some additional topics you may want to address with your children once they are old enough to understand:
All drinks aren’t created equal when it comes to alcohol content. Most beer contains 5 percent alcohol, wine 12 percent and distilled spirits (rum, vodka, whiskey or gin) 40 percent. A “standard” drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

It takes your liver at least an hour to metabolize each drink you have.
Eating will slow down the rate at which alcohol is absorbed, as will drinking slowly.
It’s smart to stay hydrated and to drink water or another non-alcoholic drink along with your alcohol.
Before going into a drinking environment, it’s a good idea to set a limit on how much you plan to drink, keep track of your drinks and stick to your plan.
It’s best to stay with friends and commit to helping each other stay responsible and safe.
It’s important to have a designated driver or another plan for getting home safely.

The truth is that you can’t make your kids’ decisions for them. But they do take your words and example into account when making their choices, and the earlier you start having honest conversations about alcohol, the better. The goal is to set clear rules when they’re young and explain your reasons for them, in the hope that as they grow, they’ll use your input to make responsible choices. Let them know that your desire for them not to drink comes from your love for them and your desire to keep them safe and healthy.

If you or another family member has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it complicates the message your kids receive. Treatment for the person who struggles and incorporating family therapy can be extremely beneficial on many levels. Michael’s House offers a three-day intensive family program for patients, which can help with learning communication skills and processing complicated emotions in a safe and supportive environment.

By Martha McLaughlin

1“Talking with Children.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Accessed November 15, 2018.
2“Underage Drinking Facts.” Talking to Teens, Accessed November 15, 2018.
3Kelmon, Jessica. “5 tough questions about teens, alcohol, and drugs — answered.” Great Schools, June 21, 2018.
4“The Truth About Alcohol.” Foundation for a Drug-Free World, Accessed November 5, 2018.
5Feliz, Josie. “Myths Debunked: Underage Drinking of Alcohol at Home Leads to Real Consequences for Both Parents and Teens.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, May 22, 2013.