10 Things to Remember When Talking to Your Child About Alcohol

Talking to your teen about the dangers of drinking may be something you're dreading—but you can't afford to put it off any longer: 5,000 teenagers die every year from alcohol-related deaths, a sobering statistic that should motivate you to start today. We're here to help: See what the experts say you should do when you have this important conversation.

Be direct but casual

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockThough it may be tempting to launch into a lecture about the dangers of underage drinking, experts recommend that you don't. Make it part your regular positive interactions with your teen—here's what kids consider quality time. In order to connect with your teen and make an impact, it's better to talk as you usually would, but don't talk around the issue. Maria Ulmer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and chief operating officer at Summit Behavioral Health, advises parents to talk about alcohol the way they would about any normal topic. Ulmer explains,"Parents should work towards open and direct communication with their children regarding use of alcohol. The NIAAA, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, recommends taking on a tone that is comfortable for parents and is a typical style in which you address everyday issues. Talking about the risks and dangers of alcohol use is important for children to hear from their parents—they look to their parents for guidance, and trust their position on hot topics like drinking." Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in parenting and teens, as well as co-author of Teenage as a Second Language, tells Reader's Digest, "When you make rules for your kids your really need to get them on board—it has to make sense to them, and they need to buy into it. You need to be informative, and set limits. Tell them about the risks and consequences involved." She adds, "Let them know that you worry and you're not making random rules. Tell them you're concerned it might get out of hand with no time to reverse things, as it often happens when drinking is involved."

Start early

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockMany parents assume that conversations about topics such as drinking can wait until a child is well into their teenage years—but this is a dangerous misconception according to Ulmer. She explains, "Parents should begin exploring conversations about drinking at an early age—somewhere between 10 and 14. Whether your children have thought about experimenting or have already experimented, it is important to convey a "no tolerance" stance regarding the use of alcohol or other drugs." (You might be surprised by the things your teens wish you knew.) Dr. Greenberg suggests that parents start talking to their children no later than middle school. She says, "This is a topic that warrants many conversations-parents often don't talk about it, believing the myth that if it's not talked about, it won't happen. This simply isn't true. Unfortunately, there are many alcoholics today that began drinking at 12 or middle-school age."

Educate yourself

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockPrior to opening a dialogue with your child about drinking, make sure you know enough about the dangers and talking points yourself. (And make sure you yourself aren't drinking too much.) Parents need to be prepared to make counter-arguments, and provide answers to any questions their child might ask. For example, if a child counters your point about the dangers of drinking with an anecdote about a friend who drank without any negative consequences, be ready to point out that the effects of drinking cannot always be seen on the outside—for example, the impact it has on brain development. Ulmer says, "Parents should access resources regarding the risks and impact of alcohol use, specifically the negative impact on the developing adolescent brain."The World Health Organization has also correlated misuse of alcohol to mental and behavioral disorders. According to Dr. Greenberg, "Parents should make sure not to shut this conversation down—validate that bad things might not happen every time, but they do in fact happen." She adds, "Make sure to have this conversation in a calm manner, and not as an alarmist, because they will simply tune you out."

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Promote healthy decision-making

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockIt is likely that your child has peers whose parents allow underage drinking with the home, and they may even reason that this is a safer way of drinking. Parents must take a firm stance on this issue, according to Ulmer. "This is just not safe. Period. Most towns are taking a severe legal approach to situations where parents condone underage drinking in their home. Large fines and criminal charges are likely outcomes for participating in activities like this. If a parent is aware that another child's parents are allowing underage drinking in their home, they should prohibit their child from participating and explain the seriousness of underage drinking—from alcohol poisoning to drinking-and-driving car accidents, these possible risks are just too serious to even consider. Healthy decision-making is something to continue to talk about with teens in this scenario." Maybe steer them toward these 10 proven ways to make better decisions. Parents need to understand just how confusing it is for teenagers when another teen's parents allow underage drinking within the home, explains Dr. Greenberg. "Parents can stick to the line, 'In our house we have different rules', but they shouldn't be so quick to shut down the conversation. They can avoid putting the more permissive parents down by simply saying, 'I don't trust the alcohol' and explaining that things can spiral out of control quickly when its use is involved." She is also quick to advise parents not to shy away from letting their children get angry with their imposed limits. She says, "There's something wrong if your teen isn't angry with the limits you've put in place. If they aren't, then you're not setting enough."

Address peer pressure head on

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockUnderestimating the influence of peers is a common mistake parents make. Children want to fit in, and for those that don't, the school environment can be brutal. (Check out what teachers want parents to know about school.) Parents need to create dialog about peer pressure, Ulmer says. She advises, "Often times, peer influence is a major factor in early experimentation with alcohol use. Take the time to talk with your teen about ways to handle peer pressure and opportunities to exercise healthy decision-making. Having a need to fit in is typically a motivation for teens. Talk with your teen about the need to fit in and explain that it doesn't have to mean taking unhealthy risks and exposing themselves to physical harm by drinking alcohol." Avoiding alcohol can also help prevent weight gain, which isn't the only health benefit of not drinking. Parents can also use peer pressure to their advantage, Dr. Greenberg says, by talking with their teen about the way alcohol can damage a reputation. "Talk to them about the many ways alcohol can affect your decision-making ability. Let them know that it makes you lose control over what you say and do, and that this can be really damaging to their reputation—teens care a lot about their reputation," she explains.

Cover all your bases

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockWhile it might be tempting to gloss over the details of the impact of underage drinking, it only aides in confusing them about your opinion of alcohol use in their age group. Be specific and thorough, and make sure that your child leaves the conversation with a good knowledge of the dangers of drinking. Ulmer says, "Educating your teen about the physical, emotional, and legal implications of underage drinking is vital to helping them comprehend the magnitude of this type of behavior. A helpful resource is thecoolspot.gov, a website focused on talking with teens about early alcohol use and peer pressure."

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Use shock tactics sparingly

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockThe sad reality of underage drinking is hard to avoid, with plenty of news reports and gruesome images of alcohol-related car accidents to drive home the truth of its danger. While parents might want to use this information to scare their child into compliance with underage drinking, experts don't think it should be a frequently used tactic. Ulmer says, "Sharing real-life examples of the negative impact of underage drinking can make an impression, but often times it can also be dismissed with the thought, 'That won't happen to me'." According to Greenberg, stories in the media can be useful, if communicated in a calm manner. "When it's a story in the local paper, ask them if they knew the individual involved. Often times, it is an older sibling of a friend. They might not react much outwardly, but the story will stay with them, and they'll make a connection," she says. With 17 ways to use alcohol other than drinking it, you can put it to good use in your home without the health risks that come with consuming it.

Ask their opinion

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockGreenberg says one of the most valuable strategies a parent can use when talking to their child about sensitive subjects like drinking, is to ask their opinion on the matter. "You really need to pull them in the discussion, because more than anything, teens want to have their opinions heard. Let them talk about their experiences. If they don't buy in and feel heard, then you won't get your point across." (You might find these 11 rules for raising teens helpful.) Greenberg also cautions parents not to assume that their child or teen is acting out. She explains, "Parents need to keep in mind that this can be a really confusing thing for kids, especially when some parents are allowing their children to drink illegally, and in your home you are not. They're not being defiant, they are confused, so talk about the reasons behind your opinion calmly."

Focus on community responsibility

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockOne aspect that parents often overlook during conversations with their teen about drinking, is the impact their choices have on others. Greenberg says, "I always said to my own daughter that she and her friends were responsible for one another. I told them they needed to take care of one another. Teens need to understand that their choices affect more than just themselves—when they get in a vehicle, when they go to a party, their decisions have a ripple effect." She adds, "It's also valid to talk to your teen about the responsibility they have to family and friends, and how their choices to engage in risky behavior affect the group as a whole." It might sober them up to understand how teen car accidents tend to happen.

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Know when to ask for help

alcoholMacrovector/ShutterstockIf your child or teen is exhibiting behaviors related to alcohol or substance abuse, it is important to know when to reach out for professional help. Ulmer advises, "Parents should be aware of signs associated with potential problems with alcohol or other drugs. Signs that a problem may be present include: change in behavior and mood, having had multiple disruptive incidences related to alcohol use, problems at school, health issues, legal problems resulting from alcohol use, or a shift in who your child is hanging around with. If you suspect that your child may have a problem with alcohol or other drug use, immediately call your pediatrician, school counselor, or other behavioral health provider." Here are 13 therapist-approved tips for finding a therapist. According to Greenberg, there are clues along the path to alcohol dependency that parents need to watch for. She explains, "When it becomes a high priority, and they're planning their weekends around drinking, these are red flags." She continues, "When kids change their peer groups, or grades start to drop, parents need to take a closer look at what really might be happening."
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