Ten Keys to Teaching Teens About Drinking

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Every time we read about a teen involved in an accident related to alcohol use, it is a tough thing for dads. We recognize how hard it can be for teens to resist the peer pressure to drink before they are old enough but we also see the harsh consequences to teen drinking in the stark light of reality.

Our teens do not always have a clear picture of the issues involving teen alcohol consumption and part of our job as parents is to help them understand the risks, respect the law and resist the pressure to get involved in drinking.

Consider some of these sad statistics from Students Against Destrutive Decisions.
  • Nearly three quarters of students (72%) have consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) by the end of high school, and more than a third (37%) have done so by eighth grade.
  • In 2008, 56.2% of current underage drinkers (ages 12-20) reported that their last use of alcohol occurred in someone else's home; 29.6% reported that it occurred in their own home.
  • During the past month (30 days), 26.4% of underage persons (ages 12-20) used alcohol, and binge drinking among the same age group was 17.4%.

So, with the startling reality that maybe more kids are drinking than we might have thought, let's consider ten important keys to talking with our kids about drinking and why it should wait until they are more mature and legal.

Recognize that peer pressure is a big deal. We may not remember precisely how it felt to be under pressure from our peers as a teenager, but it is pretty intense for teens today. They need acceptance from their friends, and the fear of not being accepted is very real for a teen.

Talking about peer pressure and how to resist without being seen as uncool is important for parents and teens.

Understand that teens have a short-term focus. While adults are usually pretty good about seeing long-term consequences, teens are just starting to figure that whole thing out. They tend naturally to be all about instant gratification, feeling in control of their world, and wanting to be treated like adults before they have earned it. So while you have to teach them about long term consequences of alcohol use at a young age, they will focus best when you talk about short term risks like being in an accident, losing the respect of their peers or losing opportunities to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities.

Start a conversation. Granted, it can be tough to talk about alcohol use with your teen. If they are not involved, you don't want them to think they are not trusted. But the issue is just too important to not bring it up. Consider some conversation starters like talking about a friend who ended up in an accident or in trouble. Then ask some things like "Have you ever been offered a beer?" or "What would have said to that guy to get him to stop before it got out of control?" Maybe you will see a public service announcement about teen alcohol use on television or hear one on the radio that can start a conversation going.

Create clear expectations about drinking. One of the things you have on your side as a parent is that underage drinking is illegal. You have an obligation as a parent to do all you can to ensure that your kids don't drink. So you need to make your expectations clear and precise. Your child should know that you expressly do not want them to drink before age 21, that you don't want them at parties or events where alcohol is present and that you don't want them in a car with a driver who has had even a drop of alcohol. If you communicate your expectations clearly, it will leave your teens knowing exactly where you and the family stands.

Set an appropriate example. Teens often look to their parents for a good example about many aspects of growing up, including learning about drinking. If you drink irresponsibly, they will likely get the message that it is OK for them as well, even if they act responsibly. You may need to curtail your alcohol consumption in the home and make sure that there is no uncontrolled alcohol in the home when you are not there. This is certainly easier if you are a non-drinker, but if you do have occasional beer or wine or other spirits, make sure you drink in moderation and that you keep any alcohol in the home secure.

Don't serve alcohol to minors. No matter what your attitude about alcohol, you cannot serve it to your teens or their friends. First, it is illegal and you could find yourself in serious trouble if anything would happen and you were involved. Second, experience shows that even if we want to teach our children to drink responsibly, it needs to not happen while they are minors. Otherwise, they form opinions and attitudes about alcohol that can lead them to irresponsible drinking now and later.

Don't talk about your underage or young adult drinking experiences. Even if some of your best memories as a teen or a young adult involved alcohol, sharing your stories will give your teens license. Some things you just should not share with your teens about your earlier life, and alcohol use is one of those things. Making it seem glamorous or exciting sends the wrong message to our underage children.

Stay calm and listen. As you have conversations about drinking and alcohol, make sure that you are listening at least as much as you are talking. Lectures are not effective tools for teaching teens; they feel more valued and respected in an adult-level conversation. So ask questions, listen for the intent and the attitude behind the words and keep your cool.

Help them find the right friends. Encourage your kids to be in peer groups that resist alcohol together. Some of those peer groups might include sports teams, runners, good students, religious groups, Scouting groups, rock climbers and the like. The more the ability of your teens and their friends to be involved in positive and structured activities, the less likely they are to drink together.

Don't try to do it alone. Parents who work together raising their teens can often accomplish more. Get together with the parents of your teen's friends and coordinate efforts. Often teens will turn to adults other than their own parents when they have problems or challenges. If you and your teen's friends' parents are on the same page, you can help each other keep the kids away from alcohol. If you think your teen is already drinking or might be at risk, consider getting some counseling or family therapy. There is certainly no shame in reaching out for help, whatever your teen's status is with regard to alcohol.

A few simple steps, combined with good communication and respect for your teens and what they are going through during these hard teen years, can help you and your teen work together to stay alcohol and drug free during these important teenage years.
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