For many parents, bringing up the subject of alcohol is no easy matter. Your young teen may try to dodge the discussion, and you yourself may feel unsure about how to proceed. To make the most of your conversation, take some time to think about the issues you want to discuss before you talk with your child. Consider too how your child might react and ways you might respond to your youngster's questions and feelings. Then choose a time to talk when both you and your child have some "down time" and are feeling relaxed.
You don't need to cover everything at once. In fact, you're likely to have a greater impact on your child's decisions about drinking by having a number of talks about alcohol use throughout his or her adolescence. Think of this talk with your child as the first part of an ongoing conversation.
And remember, do make it a conversation, not a lecture! You might begin by finding out what your child thinks about alcohol and drinking.
Your Child's Views about Alcohol
Ask your young teen what he or she knows about alcohol and what he or she thinks about teen drinking. Ask your child why he or she thinks kids drink. Listen carefully without interrupting. Not only will this approach help your child to feel heard and respected, but it can serve as a natural "lead-in" to discussing alcohol topics.
Important Facts about Alcohol
Although many kids believe that they already know everything about alcohol, myths and misinformation abound. Here are some important facts to share:
- Alcohol is a powerful drug that slows down the body and mind. It impairs coordination; slows reaction time; and impairs vision, clear thinking, and judgment.
- Beer and wine are not "safer" than hard liquor. A 12-ounce can of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and 1.5 ounces of hard liquor all contain the same amount of alcohol and have the same effects on the body and mind.
- On average, it takes 2 to 3 hours for a single drink to leave a person's system. Nothing can speed up this process, including drinking coffee, taking a cold shower, or "walking it off."
- People tend to be very bad at judging how seriously alcohol has affected them. That means many individuals who drive after drinking think they can control a car-but actually cannot.
- Anyone can develop a serious alcohol problem, including a teenager.
Good Reasons Not to Drink
In talking with your child about reasons to avoid alcohol, stay away from scare tactics. Most young teens are aware that many people drink without problems, so it is important to discuss the consequences of alcohol use without overstating the case.
Some good reasons why teens should not drink:
- You want your child to avoid alcohol. Clearly state your own expectations about your child's drinking. Your values and attitudes count with your child, even though he or she may not always show it.
- To maintain self-respect. Teens say the best way to persuade them to avoid alcohol is to appeal to their self-respect- let them know that they are too smart and have too much going for them to need the crutch of alcohol. Teens also are likely to pay attention to examples of how alcohol might lead to embarrassing situations or events-things that might damage their self-respect or alter important relationships.
- Drinking is illegal. Because alcohol use under the age of 21 is illegal, getting caught may mean trouble with the authorities. Even if getting caught doesn't lead to police action, the parents of your child's friends may no longer permit them to associate with your child.
- Drinking can be dangerous. One of the leading causes of teen deaths is motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol. Drinking also makes a young person more vulnerable to sexual assault and unprotected sex. And while your teen may believe he or she wouldn't engage in hazardous activities after drinking, point out that because alcohol impairs judgment, a drinker is very likely to think such activities won't be dangerous.
- You have a family history of alcoholism. If one or more members of your family has suffered from alcoholism, your child may be somewhat more vulnerable to developing a drinking problem.
- Alcohol affects young people differently than adults. Drinking while the brain is still maturing may lead to long-lasting intellectual effects and may even increase the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence later in life.
The "Magic Potion" Myth
The media's glamorous portrayal of alcohol encourages many teens to believe that drinking will make them "cool," popular, attractive, and happy. Research shows that teens who expect such positive effects are more likely to drink at early ages. However, you can help to combat these dangerous myths by watching TV shows and movies with your child and discussing how alcohol is portrayed in them. For example, television advertisements for beer often show young people having an uproariously good time, as though drinking always puts people in a terrific mood. Watching such a commercial with your child can be an opportunity to discuss the many ways that alcohol can affect people-in some cases bringing on feelings of sadness or anger rather than carefree high spirits.
How to Handle Peer Pressure.
It's not enough to tell your young teen that he or she should avoid alcohol-you also need to help your child figure out how. What can your daughter say when she goes to a party and a friend offers her a beer? (See "Help Your Child Say No.") Or what should your son do if he finds himself in a home where kids are passing around a bottle of wine and parents are nowhere in sight? What should their response be if they are offered a ride home with an older friend who has been drinking? Brainstorm with your teen for ways that he or she might handle these and other difficult situations, and make clear how you are willing to support your child. An example: "If you find yourself at a home where kids are drinking, call me and I'll pick you up-and there will be no scolding or punishment." The more prepared your child is, the better able he or she will be to handle high-pressure situations that involve drinking.
Mom, Dad, Did You Drink When You Were a Kid?
This is the question many parents dread-yet it is highly likely to come up in any family discussion of alcohol. The reality is that many parents did drink before they were old enough to legally do so. So how can one be honest with a child without sounding like a hypocrite who advises, "Do as I say, not as I did"?
This is a judgment call. If you believe that your drinking or drug use history should not be part of the discussion, you can simply tell your child that you choose not to share it. Another approach is to admit that you did do some drinking as a teenager, but that it was a mistake-and give your teen an example of an embarrassing or painful moment that occurred because of your drinking. This approach may help your child better understand that youthful alcohol use does have negative consequences.
Adapted from Make a Difference: Talk to Your Child about Alcohol
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
NIH Publication No. 06-4314
Reviewed by athealth on February 8, 2014.