Make a Difference - Talk to Your Child About Alcohol
This guide provides facts and practical advice on how to talk with your children about underage drinking, and it can help you create household rules to support your values. Society gives kids mixed messages about alcohol. Make sure that your children get their information from the best possible resource – you.
Make a Difference: Talk to Your Child about Alcohol
- You have more influence on your child’s values and decisions about drinking before he or she begins to use alcohol.
- Kids who drink are more likely to be victims of violent crime, to be involved in alcohol-related traffic crashes, and to have serious school-related problems.
- Parents can have a major impact on their children’s drinking, especially during the preteen and early teen years.
With so many drugs available to young people these days, you may wonder, “Why help kids avoid alcohol?” Alcohol is a drug, as surely as cocaine and marijuana are. It’s also illegal to drink under the age of 21. And it’s dangerous. Kids who drink are more likely to:
- Be victims of violent crime.
- Have serious problems in school.
- Be involved in drinking-related traffic crashes.
This guide is geared toward parents and guardians of young people ages 10 to 14 – and beyond. Keep in mind that the suggestions you will find are just that – suggestions. Trust your instincts. Choose ideas you are comfortable with, and use your own style in carrying out the approaches you find useful. Your child looks to you for guidance and support in making life decisions – including the decision not to use alcohol.
“But my child isn’t drinking yet,” you may think. “Isn’t it a little early to be concerned about drinking?” Not at all.
This is the age at which some children begin experimenting with alcohol. Even if your child is not drinking, he or she may be receiving pressure to drink. Act now. Keeping quiet about underage drinking may give your child the impression that you think alcohol use is OK for kids.
It’s not easy. As children approach adolescence, friends exert a lot of influence. Fitting in is a chief priority for teens, and parents often think their advice is ignored. But kids will listen. Study after study shows that even during the teen years, parents have an enormous influence on their children’s behavior.
The bottom line is that most young teens don’t yet drink alcohol. And parents’ disapproval of their children's alcohol use is the key reason they choose not to drink. Make no mistake: you can make a difference.
Teens and Alcohol: The Risks
For young people, alcohol is the number one drug of choice. In fact, alcohol is used by more young people than tobacco or illicit drugs. Although most children under age 14 have not yet begun to drink, early adolescence is a time of special risk for beginning to experiment with alcohol.
While some parents and guardians may feel relieved that their teen is “only” drinking, it is important to remember that alcohol is a powerful, mood-altering drug. Not only does alcohol affect the mind and body in often unpredictable ways, but teens lack the judgment and coping skills to handle alcohol wisely. As a result:
- Alcohol-related traffic crashes are a major cause of death among teens. Alcohol use also is linked with the deaths of young people by drowning, suicide and homicide.
- Teens who use alcohol are more likely to become sexually active at earlier ages and to have sexual intercourse more often than teens who do not drink. They are also more likely to have unprotected sex.
- Young people who drink are more likely than others to be victims of violent crimes, including rape, aggravated assault, and robbery.
- Teens who drink are more likely to have problems with school work and school conduct.
- The majority of boys and girls who drink tend to binge (5 or more drinks on an occasion for boys and 4 or more on an occasion for girls) when they drink.
- A person who begins drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than someone who waits until adulthood to use alcohol.
The message is clear: Alcohol use is very risky business for young people. And the longer children delay alcohol use, the less likely they are to develop problems associated with it. That’s why it is so important to help your child avoid alcohol use.
Your Teen’s World
Early adolescence is a time of enormous and often confusing changes for your child, which makes it a challenging time for you both. Understanding what it’s like to be a teen can help you stay closer to your child and have more influence on the choices he or she makes – including decisions about using alcohol.
- Changes in the Brain. Research shows that as a child matures, his or her brain continues to develop too. In fact, the brain’s final, adult wiring may not even be complete until well into the twenties. Research also indicates the adolescent brain may be specifically “wired” to help youth navigate through adolescence and to take some of the necessary risks to become independent from their parents. This may help explain why teens often seek out new and thrilling – sometimes dangerous – situations, including drinking alcohol. It also offers a possible reason for why young teens are so “now” oriented, think they are indestructible, and act so impulsively – often not recognizing that their actions can have serious consequences.
- Growing Up and Fitting In. In adolescence “fitting in” becomes extremely important. Kids begin to feel more self-conscious about their bodies and begin to wonder if they are “good enough” – tall enough, slender enough, strong enough, attractive enough – compared to others. They look to friends and media for clues on how they measure up, and they begin to question adults’ values and rules. So, it is not surprising that this is a time when parents and children clash. Respecting your child’s growing independence while still providing support and setting limits is a key challenge during this time. It is particularly important to let your children know that in your eyes, they do measure up – and that you care about them deeply.
Do you know that . . .
- 28 percent of Shasta County 9th graders report drinking alcohol within the past month?
- 32 percent of Shasta County 9th graders said they had been drunk or very sick after drinking alcohol at least once in their lives?
- 52 percent of Shasta County 7th graders have ridden in a car driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol?
The Bottom Line: A Strong Parent-Child Relationship
You may wonder why a guide to preventing teen alcohol use is putting so much emphasis on parents’ need to understand and support their children. The fact is, the best way to influence your child to avoid drinking is to have a strong, trusting relationship with him or her. Research shows that teens are much more likely to delay drinking when they feel they have a close, supportive tie with a parent or guardian. It is also true that if your son or daughter eventually does begin to drink, a good relationship with you will help protect him or her from developing alcohol-related problems.
The opposite is also true: When the relationship between a parent and teen is full of conflict or is very distant, the teen is more likely to use alcohol and to develop drinking-related problems.
This connection between the parent-child relationship and a child’s drinking habits makes a lot of sense when you think about it. First, when children have a strong bond with a parent, they are apt to feel good about themselves and therefore be less likely to give in to peer pressure to use alcohol. Second, a good relationship with you is likely to influence your children to try to live up to your expectations, because they want to maintain their close tie with you. Here are some ways to build a strong, supportive bond with your child:
- Establish open communication. Make it easy for your teen to talk honestly with you. (See “Tips for Communicating with your Teen” below.)
- Show you care. Even though young teens may not always show it, they still need to know they are important to their parents. Make it a point to regularly spend one-on-one time with your child – time when you can give him or her your loving, undivided attention. Some activities to share: a walk, a bike ride, a quiet dinner out, or a cookie-baking session.
- Draw the line. Set clear, realistic expectations for your child’s behavior. Establish appropriate consequences for breaking rules and consistently enforce them.
- Offer acceptance. Make sure your teen knows that you appreciate his or her efforts, as well as accomplishments. Avoid hurtful teasing or criticism.
- Understand that your child is growing up. This doesn’t mean a hands-off attitude. But as you guide your child’s behavior, also make an effort to respect his or her growing need for independence and privacy.
Tips for Communicating with Your Teen
Developing open, trusting communication between you and your child is essential to helping your child avoid alcohol use. If your child feels comfortable talking openly with you, you’ll have a greater chance of guiding him or her toward healthy decision-making. Some ways to begin:
- Encourage conversation. Encourage your child to talk about whatever interests him or her. Listen without interruption and give your child a chance to teach you something new. Your active listening to your child’s enthusiasms paves the way for conversations about topics that concern you.
- Ask open-ended questions. Encourage your teen to tell you how he or she thinks and feels about the issue you’re discussing. Avoid questions that have a simple “yes” or “no” answer.
- Control your emotions. If you hear something you don’t like, try not to respond with anger. Instead, take a few deep breaths and acknowledge your feelings in a constructive way.
- Make every conversation a “win-win” experience. Don’t lecture or try to “score points” on your teen by showing how he or she is wrong. If you show respect for your child’s viewpoint, he or she will be more likely to listen to and respect yours.
Talking with Your Teen about Alcohol
For many parents, bringing up the subject of alcohol is no easy matter. Your young teen may try to dodge the discussion, and you may feel unsure about how to proceed. To make the most of your conversation, take some time to think through the issues you want to discuss before you talk with your child.
Also, think about 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.
Realize that you don’t need to cover everything at once. In fact, you’re likely to have a greater impact on your child’s drinking by having a number of talks about alcohol use throughout his or her adolescence. Think of this discussion with your child as the first part of an ongoing conversation.
Remember; make it a conversation, not a lecture! Try some of the following topics for discussion:
- 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 more alcohol topics.
- Important Facts about Alcohol. Although many kids believe 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 the body’s system. Nothing can speed up this process, not even 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.
- The “Magic Potion” Myth. The media’s glamorous portrayal of alcohol encourages many teens to believe that drinking will make them popular, attractive, happy and “cool.” Research shows that teens who expect such positive effects are more likely to drink at an earlier age. However, you can help to combat these dangerous myths by watching TV shows and movies with your child and discussing how alcohol is portrayed. 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.
- 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. For example, you can talk about the dangers of riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking without insisting that “all kids who ride with drinkers get into crashes.”
- You want your child to avoid alcohol. Clearly state your own expectations about your child drinking. Set clear rules and consequences. Your values and attitudes count with your child, even though he or she may not always show it.
- You want your child to maintain self-respect. In a series of focus groups, teens reported that the best way to persuade them to avoid alcohol is to appeal to their self-respect – letting them know that they are too smart and have too much going for them to need the crutch of alcohol. Teens also pay attention to ways in which alcohol might cause them to do something embarrassing that might damage their self-respect and 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 being caught doesn’t lead to police action, the parents of your child’s friends may no longer permit their children to associate with your child. If drinking occurs on school grounds, your child could be suspended.
- 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. Even though your teen may believe he or she wouldn’t engage in hazardous activities after drinking, point out that because alcohol impairs judgment, it is easy for someone drinking alcohol to think such activities won’t be dangerous.
- You have a family history of alcoholism. If one or more members of your immediate or extended family has suffered from alcoholism, your child may be somewhat more vulnerable to developing a drinking problem. Your child needs to know that for him or her, drinking may carry special risks.
- 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 below: Saying “No” to a Drink.) 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.
Saying No to a Drink
For starters: Your child should be able to say “no” and mean it by
a. Standing up straight.
b. Making eye contact.
c. Using a firm voice while still being polite.
a. No thanks.
b. No thanks. Alcohol smells bad to me.
c. I’m fine – without alcohol.
d. I don’t feel like it. Do you have something else? Any soda?
e. I could get kicked off the team.
f. Are you talking to me? Forget about it!
g. Why do you keep asking when I’ve said, “No?”
- 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 alcohol 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.
Taking Action: Prevention Strategies for Parents
While parent-child conversations about drinking are essential, talking isn’t enough – you also need to take concrete action to help your child resist alcohol. Research strongly shows that active, supportive involvement by parents and guardians can help teens avoid underage drinking and prevent later alcohol misuse.
In a recent Shasta County survey, 68 percent of ninth graders said alcohol was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get and 28 percent reported drinking within the last 30 days. The message is clear: Young teens still need plenty of adult supervision. Some ways to provide it include:
- Monitor Alcohol Use in Your Home. If you keep alcohol in your home, keep track of the supply. Make it clear to your child that you don’t allow un-chaperoned parties or other teen gatherings in your home. If possible, however, encourage him or her to invite friends over when you are at home. The more entertaining your child does in your home, the more you will know about your child’s friends and activities.
- Commit to the well-being of your children and their friends: Pledge to be part of a community of adults who refuse to provide alcohol to teens.
- Connect with Other Parents. Getting to know other parents and guardians can help you keep closer tabs on your child. Friendly relations can make it easier for you to call the parent of a teen who is having a party to be sure that a responsible adult will be present, and that alcohol will not be available. You’re likely to find out that you’re not the only adult who wants to prevent teen alcohol use – many other parents share your concern.
- Keep Track of Your Child’s Activities. Be aware of your teen’s plans and whereabouts. Generally, your child will be more open to your supervision if he or she feels you are keeping tabs because you care, not because you distrust him or her.
- Set Guidelines When Your Teen Hosts a Party
- Agree on a guest list – and don’t allow party crashers.
- Make sure alcohol is not accessible to teens. If you have alcohol in your home, monitor the supply and keep it locked.
- Discuss ground rules with your child before the party, including not allowing guests to return if they leave the party.
- Encourage your teen to plan the party with a responsible friend so that he or she will have support if problems arise.
- Brainstorm fun activities for the party.
- If a guest brings alcohol into your house, ask him or her to leave. If he or she has already been drinking, call the parents or find another adult to provide a safe ride home.
- Serve plenty of snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Be visible and available – but don’t join the party!
- Develop Family Rules About Teen Drinking. When parents establish clear “no alcohol” rules and expectations, their children are less likely to begin drinking. Although each family should develop agreements about teen alcohol use that reflect their own beliefs and values, some possible family rules about drinking are:
- Kids will not drink alcohol until they are 21.
- Older siblings will not encourage younger brothers or sisters to drink, and will not give them alcohol.
- Kids will not stay at teen parities where alcohol is served.
- Kids will not ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
- When you have discussed the family rules about alcohol use, establish reasonable consequences for breaking them. It’s important not to over-react, but the consequences do need to make an impression. Choose something meaningful such as restricting your child from socializing for a limited period of time. Also, be sure to choose something that you will enforce consistently. Your child will be less willing to break rules when he or she can count on what you will do.
- Set a Good Example. Parents and guardians are important role models for their children – even children who are fast becoming teenagers. Studies indicate that if a parent uses alcohol, his or her children are more likely to drink themselves. But even if you use alcohol, there may be ways to lessen the likelihood that your child will drink. Some suggestions:
- Use alcohol moderately.
- Don’t imply to your child that alcohol is a good way to handle problems. For example, don’t come home from work and say, “I had a rotten day. I need a drink.”
- Let your child see that you have other, healthier ways to cope with stress, such as exercise, listening to music, or talking things over with your spouse, partner or friend.
- Don’t tell your kids stories about your own drinking in a way that conveys the message that alcohol use is funny or glamorous.
- Never drink and drive or ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
- When you entertain other adults, provide alcohol-free beverages and plenty of food. If anyone drinks too much at your party, make arrangements for them to get home safely.
- Don’t Support Teen Drinking. Your attitudes and behavior toward teen drinking also influence your child. Avoid making jokes about underage drinking or drunkenness, or otherwise showing acceptance of teen alcohol use. Never serve alcohol to your child’s underage friends. Research shows that kids whose parents or friends’ parents provide alcohol for teen get-togethers are more likely to engage in heavier drinking, to drink more often and to get into traffic crashes. Remember, too, that in almost every state it is illegal to provide alcohol to minors who are not family members.
- Help Your Child Build Healthy Friendships. If your child’s friends use alcohol, your child is more likely to drink too. Encourage your young teen to develop friendships with kids who do not drink and who are otherwise healthy influences on your child. A good first step is to simply get to know your child’s friends better. You can then invite the kids you feel good about to family get-togethers and outings and find other ways to encourage your child to spend time with those teens. Also, talk directly with your youngster about the qualities in a friend that really count, such as trustworthiness and kindness, rather than popularity or a “cool” style.
When you disapprove of one of your child’s friends, the situation can be tougher to handle. While it may be tempting to simply forbid your child to see that friend, such a move may make your child even more determined to hang out with him or her. Instead, you might try pointing out your reservations about the friend in a caring, supportive way. You can also limit your child’s time with that friend through your family rules, such as how after-school time can be spent or how late your child can stay out in the evening.
- Encourage Healthy Alternatives to Alcohol. One reason kids drink is to beat boredom. Encourage your child to participate in supervised after-school and weekend activities that are challenging and fun. According to a recent survey of preteens, the availability of enjoyable, alcohol-free activities is a big reason for deciding not to use alcohol.
If your community doesn’t offer many supervised activities, consider getting together with other parents and young teens to help create some. Start by asking your child and other kids what they want to do, because they will be most likely to participate in activities that truly interest them. Find out whether your church, school or community organization can help you sponsor a project.
Could my child develop a drinking problem?
While this guide is primarily concerned with preventing teen alcohol use, we also need to pay attention to the possibility of youthful alcohol abuse. Certain children are more likely than others to drink heavily and encounter alcohol-related difficulties, including health, school, legal, family and emotional problems. Kids at highest risk for alcohol-related problems are those who:
- Begin using alcohol or other drugs before age 15.
- Have a parent who is a problem drinker or an alcoholic.
- Have close friends who use alcohol and/or other drugs.
- Have been aggressive, antisocial or hard to control from an early age.
- Have experienced childhood abuse and/or other major traumas.
- Have current behavioral problems and/or are failing at school.
- Have parents who do not support them, do not communicate openly with them, and do not keep track of their behavior or whereabouts.
- Experience ongoing hostility or rejection from parents and/or harsh, inconsistent discipline.
The greater the number of experiences such as these, the greater the possibility that a child will develop problems with alcohol. Having one or more risk factors does not mean that your child definitely will develop a drinking problem, but it does suggest that you may need to act now to help protect your youngster from later problems.
Talking with your child is more important now than ever. If your child has serious behavior problems, you may want to seek help from his or her school counselor, physician, and/or a mental health professional. If you suspect that your child may already have a problem with drinking, consider getting advice from a health care professional specializing in alcohol problems before talking with your teen (see “Warning Signs of a Drinking Problem” below). To find a professional, contact your family doctor or a local hospital, or go to the Shasta County Health and Human Services website where you will find a Resource Guide listed in the right-hand column. Other sources of information and guidance may be found at the CARE Program, in your local Yellow Pages under “Alcoholism”, or through one of the resources listed at the end of this guide.
Warning Signs of a Drinking Problem
Although the following may indicate a problem with alcohol or other drugs, some also reflect normal teenage growing pains. Experts believe that a drinking problem is more likely if you notice several of these signs at the same time, if they occur suddenly, and if some of them are extreme in nature.
- Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability and defensiveness
- School problems: poor attendance, low grades and/or recent disciplinary action
- Rebelling against family rules
- Switching friends, along with a reluctance to have you get to know the new friends
- A “nothing matters” attitude: sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and general low energy
- Finding alcohol in your child’s room or backpack, or smelling alcohol on his or her breath
- Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination or slurred speech
- Establish a loving, trusting relationship with your child.
- Make it easy for your teen to talk honestly with you.
- Talk with your child about alcohol facts, reasons not to drink, and ways to avoid drinking in difficult situations.
- Keep tabs on your young teen’s activities and join with other parents in making common policies about teen alcohol use.
- Develop family rules about teen drinking and establish consequences.
- Set a good example regarding your own alcohol use and your response to teen drinking.
- Encourage your child to develop healthy friendships and fun alternatives to drinking.
- Know whether your child is at high risk for a drinking problem; if so, take steps to lessen that risk.
- Know the warning signs of a teen drinking problem and act promptly to get help for your child.
- Believe in your own power to help your child avoid alcohol use.
A national resource center for communities who are working to prevent alcohol and other drug abuse across the nation.
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
Provides educational materials on alcohol abuse and alcoholism as well as phone numbers of local NCADD affiliates who can provide information on local treatment resources.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Scientific Communications Branch
Makes available free informational materials on many aspects of alcohol use, alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Drug Information Treatment and Referral Hotline
Provides information, support, treatment options, and referrals to local rehab centers for alcohol and other drug problems. Operates 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Adapted from "Make A Difference: Talk to Your Child About Alcohol," National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH Publication No. 06-4314; Revised 2009.