"Last summer a teen in my community died in a car accident after a drinking party. Can you give tips on how to talk to my kids about alcohol? They're 7 and 11."
The good news is that recent research shows that drinking alcohol is on the decline among teens, with about 60% of teenagers of all ages saying they don't drink. The bad news is that some of these teens are using marijuana instead of alcohol. The ideas in this article focus mostly on alcohol, but can be adapted to discussions with teens about how to resist marijuana use, even as recreational use of marijuana is being legalized in many places.
Don't wait until your kids are teens before you have these conversations. This is a topic you'll want to revisit over the years as your child reaches new levels of understanding -- and temptation.
1. Start talking about alcohol early, whenever it's relevant.
When there's an accident in your community, talk to your child about it, even if he's only nine. "This was a tragedy that could so easily have been avoided... alcohol is not for high school students... their bodies and brains are not ready to handle it yet. That's why it's against the law for kids to drink alcohol."
2. Answer their questions.
"But why are grown-ups allowed to drink? They get in accidents, too!" your 11 year old might say.
"You're right, Sweetie. No one should drink and drive. And even for grown-ups, alcohol does change the brain so the person doesn't think as well or react as quickly. But for adults who drink moderately, that change is temporary. When kids try alcohol before their brains are mature, the alcohol actually changes the way the brain develops, so the effects are long-lasting. It also makes those young people much less likely to be able to handle drinking as adults. That's one of the reasons it's so important to wait until you're older."
3. Set clear expectations.
For a 7 year old: "When is it okay to drink alcohol? That's right, when you're a grown-up!"
For an 11 year old: "It’s my job to help you stay healthy. I know that lots of kids around you will try alcohol and you'll naturally be curious about it. You can always tell me and ask me anything you want, and we can brainstorm what you can say to your friends, but I don't want you drinking. It's bad for you in so many ways."
For a 15 year old: "When you are a grown-up, whether you drink is up to you. Right now, though, it is up to me to help you protect yourself. Drinking alcohol is against the law and it's dangerous for you. I want you to take care of yourself so you have the best life possible now and in the future.”
For all ages: "I know that marijuana is being legalized, but not for young people. That's because your brain is still growing, and any psychoactive substance affects the way your brain develops. When you're an adult, you can make your own decisions about marijuana, but I expect you to say No to it until you're of age."
4. Give your kids facts before you think they need them.
"A lot of kids drink...Why do I have to wait until I'm grown up?"
- Because your brain is still developing, so using alcohol actually changes the way your brain works and makes it less smart, and less happy -- for the rest of your life.
- Because kids who try alcohol before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who begin after age 20.
- Because being a teenager is hard, and making good choices requires all your best thinking. Teens can't think as well when they drink, so you're more likely to do things you'll be sorry about later.
- Because it's bad for your body. (For kids who play sports, this can be especially convincing.)
- Because it's against the law.
5. Keep communication open.
Kids often test you to see if you'll over-react, before they trust you with their biggest concerns. So when you hear "Oliver snuck vodka into school today in a Starbucks cup," take a deep breath and stay calm so you can listen. Instead of "That's terrible! I hope he got in big trouble!" -- which shuts down the conversation -- you might get your child talking and thinking with questions like:
"Wow! How could you tell he was drinking? .... What did the other kids do?... Did other kids try it?... How did they act?... What did you think?... Did you want to try it?.... Why or why not?.... Why do you think Oliver did that?... What ended up happening?... Do you think other kids will try this now?.... Would you ever do something like that?.... Why or why not?... Did any of the kids handle this incident in a way you admired?"
6. Coach instead of trying to control.
You can't actually control your child when they're out of your sight. But you can help them become a person who has good values and good judgment. You do that by modeling and by talking. Ask questions to help your child reflect on what’s important to them and who they want to be. Then listen hard. You'll learn a lot from their answers.
- Why do you think it's illegal for kids and teens to drink alcohol?
- What would you do if you were in a car and the driver had been drinking?
- What about if the driver was a grown-up, like the parent of a friend?
- Do you know any adults who drink too much? What do you think of them?
- Have you ever thought that I drank too much? Acted differently when I drank alcohol?
- Do you know any kids who have tried alcohol or drugs? Do you think that's a problem?
- Why do you think kids try alcohol?
- When do you think kids are ready to try alcohol?
- What do the kids at your school do at parties? Have you been to a party like that?
- Have you ever been offered a drink? How did you handle it? Were you tempted? Why or why not?
- What could you say if you were offered a drink and you didn't want to look foolish?
- What could you do at a party if you were feeling a little nervous, besides drinking?
- What would you do if you were at a party and someone passed out from drinking alcohol?
- Have you ever heard of rohypnol pills, often called "roofies"? This is a prescription-only sedative that has been used in many date rapes because it incapacitates the victim. How would you protect yourself against someone putting a roofie in your drink?
- Would you be worried about becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs? Why or why not?
7. Have practice conversations with your child
...about the various scenarios he might encounter and the decisions he might have to make. What might he do or say? For instance, if someone offers him a drink:
- "No, thanks, I’m the designated driver."
- "No, thanks, I want to keep a clear head tonight."
- "No, thanks, I don’t drink."
- "No, thanks, my playing on the team is too important to me."
- "No, thanks, I’m allergic to alcohol."
- "No thanks, I love my cokes plain."
- "No thanks, I take medication that interacts with alcohol in a dangerous way."
- "No, thanks. My parents would ground me forever if they found out -- and they always do!"
8. Share practical strategies.
Alcohol is part of many teen gatherings, just as it is part of many adult gatherings. Brainstorm with your child to come up with ideas about how they can support themselves to remain a non-drinker. For instance:
- Cultivate a group of other non-drinkers who enjoy doing things you enjoy, like board games, cooking or crafts.
- Ask your parents to help you make your home the gathering place of choice for non-alcoholic events.
- Find another non-drinking teen to go with you to any party where there is alcohol, for mutual support.
- At parties where there is alcohol, bring a favorite non-alcoholic drink to sip on.
- When you go to a party where there is alcohol, have an alternative plan in case the drinking starts to get out of hand. For instance, agree in advance with a friend that you'll leave early and go to your house for popcorn and a movie, unless you're both loving being there.
9. Make sure your teen has other opportunities for extreme fun.
Teens need excitement and to test themselves in new situations that involve excitement and risk. Encourage your teen to meet these needs safely, whether through physical activity like skateboarding or rock climbing, or through a passion like acting.
10. Raise a child who can say No.
When kids are raised to obey authority without question, they sometimes can't assert themselves when other teens act like authorities. When your child says no, listen, and when possible, try to find win-win solutions. You'll raise a young person who WANTS to cooperate with you, and who follows her own moral compass. When you wish your child would just obey without asserting her side of things, remember the saying: "Obedience is doing what you're told no matter what's right. Morality is doing what's right no matter what you're told."
11. When your child DOES try alcohol, be there to talk about it.
Like it or not, most kids will try alcohol before they're 21. Your goal is to postpone that day as long as possible, AND to keep good communication with your child so that when they do start drinking, you know about it. Then you can help them think through how to keep themselves safe.
"I hear that you're curious and want to try drinking. But you don't know how your body will react. What would you do to be sure you're safe? How would you be sure that you have a friend with you who isn't drinking, who you can count on? How would you be sure you can take care of yourself if some guy you're not interested in gets forceful? How would you get home?"
12. Make a plan now to be your teen's backup.
Set up a signal that your child can text to you, such as a code word or a specific emoji, that is only used as a signal for "Come get me!" As soon as your child texts you that signal, your job is to immediately text your child that there is a family emergency, so you are coming to pick up your child. That allows your teen to tell her friends that her mean parents are making her come home for some family emergency. Parents often ask "What happens on Monday at school when friends ask "What was the emergency?" In my experience, they rarely ask, but if your teen needs an explanation, they can simply say, "You know my mom. Everything is an emergency."
Don't let a momentary lapse become a tragedy. “Never hesitate to call me if you're in trouble or one of your friends is in trouble. I will be there if you need me, no matter what, and no punishment.”
13. Model healthy living.
Research shows that kids are influenced by their parents' drinking. So if you drink heavily, your child is more likely to start drinking earlier and to drink more heavily. Model a responsible relationship with alcohol. Equally important, model handling your own emotions responsibly, which gives kids the foundation they need to manage their own emotions, so they don't self-medicate.
14. Foster emotional intelligence.
Help your child learn to notice his own moods and work through his feelings in a healthy way. Help him find positive ways to deal with stress. Drinking is one way that teens "self-medicate" when they don't have healthier ways to process their feelings.
15. Above all, stay connected with your child, at every age.
Every bit of influence you have with your child derives from your relationship.
I highly recommend the book Teen Speak by Jennifer Salerno, which is a guide to having conversations with teens about risky behavior (the link is below.)
This page on the US Government Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services website has a lot more resources for parents, including a free app you can download that guides you in talking with your child: