How to Talk to Teens about Drinking

How to talk to teens about drinking, PLUS - what to do when they slip up. Keep reading...

By Taylor Freeman, M.S., LPC, LMFT Group Innovation Manager | Feb 29, 2016
Talk To Teens About Drinking

This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

The teenage years can bring new challenges that make those once draining, sleepless newborn nights seem like a piece of cake. As kids grow into adolescents, they begin to drift farther from their parents and closer to their peer relationships.  At the same time, they are confronted with a complex array of really great learning opportunities, disguised as difficult situations laden with peer pressure and uncertainty.  As a parent, part of the job is making sure those difficult experiences turn into great learning opportunities.  While having a conversation about a difficult topic like alcohol use may be challenging, the fact that is challenging makes it all the more important. 

There are two very key aspects to remember when talking to kids about difficult topics like drinking- your posture and your relationship with the child. By posture, I mean the way you approach the child, including tone of voice and body language.  By relationship, I mean the level of connection you have with the child, including the amount of openness and honesty in your relationship.  If you can focus on keeping a healthy posture and a healthy relationship with your child, the potential to successfully navigate the teenage years gets a little higher. 

When it comes to teenage drinking, the best time to talk to your kids about drinking is before your kid starts experimenting with drinking, or immediately following the decision to experiment with drinking.  Discussing the topic pre-emptively allows a non-threatening foundation to be set between you and your child, and discussing it right after it occurs sends the message to your child that this is important and that you care.  

I encourage parents to think about peer pressure when talking about drinking with teens.  Remembering what it felt like to be a teen yourself, and the need to fit in with your peer group, may be a good place to start before entering into a conversation with your child.  Focus on opening space to talk about the topic.  Instead of telling your kids, “Don’t drink. It’s bad for you”, or making comments that are overly rigid, try framing the conversation around hypothetical questions like, “If you saw your friends drinking, how would you want to handle that?” or “What do you think would be a good thing to do if you were at a friend’s house and your friend offered you alcohol?”  These questions open up space for a conversation to occur between you and your child about his current situation without judgment.  During these conversations you can let your teen know what he might expect during a situation when drinking occurs. Discuss with him that he may feel pressured to experiment. Teach him about peer pressure and what it might feel like to be pulled in one direction even when he can tell in his heart that it’s not the right choice. And then talk about other options that he can choose instead of drinking.

It is important to setup clear expectations and consequences about drinking with your child.  Have your child help you establish appropriate consequences. He can share ideas about what he thinks would be a logical consequence for not following the mutually decided upon expectation.  That way if, or when, an incident occurs, he will be accountable for the results of his actions because he helped establish the consequences in the first place.

If you discover that your child continues to make poor choices around alcohol, try to understand why. Don’t start by punishing him for drinking and telling him how irresponsible his behavior was, even if that’s what you’re feeling.  Again, it is about maintaining your relationship with him. Instead, try to get to the motivation behind it. You can even ask him, “What led you to drink so much at the party? Please help me understand so that we can figure out the best way to help you.” You might learn that he was curious about what alcohol tasted like. You might learn that other kids were encouraging him to drink. Once you have a better idea of what he was thinking, you can more easily work through a healthy solution.

Sometimes, despite our best parenting, teenagers are not interested in hearing from their parents. If this sounds like your relationship, no need to worry! It might be best for you and your child to pick another trusted adult who can have these tough conversations. Your kid might really respect and listen to a youth group leader, a coach, a mentor, or a neighbor. As long as you also trust this adult, you can talk directly with the other adult and let them know that your kid really looks up to him, and that you’re hoping he will have a talk with your kid about drinking. Just share a few of the basics that you hope are covered, and let him do the talking.

This can definitely be a tricky time for parents, and the important thing is that kids need to be empowered to make responsible choices, and then know that they have unconditional love (and appropriate consequences) when they slip.