Tips for Talking to Your Kids about Alcohol

By: Dr. Gene Roehlkepartain

Alcohol use by teens is sometimes considered a “gateway” to a wide range of other high-risk activities, including premature sexual activity and illegal drug use. Early alcohol use has lasting, sometimes tragic, consequences for young people. Although many factors influence whether teens use alcohol, one thing is clear: Mothers, fathers, and other parenting adults play a central role in children’s decisions.

Here are some things you can say or do to keep kids from drinking:

  • Start early. Setting and enforcing clear expectations about not using alcohol when children are young is key to delaying first use. That’s important, since the younger children are when they first use alcohol, the more likely they are to deal with its negative consequences.
  • Keep communication open. Be interested in your child’s life, and be open to information he or she may share. Not only will this make it easier to talk about the difficult issues regarding alcohol and other topics, but it will also give you information about where your child may be facing pressure or temptation to use alcohol.
  • More ways to talk with your kids about alcohol use >>

  • Set clear, specific rules about alcohol use. Teens who have well-defined, alcohol-specific rules are less likely to start drinking. Those who start later are likely to drink less.
  • Address drinking and driving. Be clear that your child should never drive with any alcohol in her or his system or ride with someone who has been drinking. Have a clear plan for what to do if your child is in a situation that could involve alcohol and driving. This could include an agreement to call you for help at any time, with no questions asked (though consequences would be in place after the immediate danger has passed).
  • Adjust as your child grows up and faces new situations. As your child grows, he or she will face new challenges and situations. In addition, he or she will pull away from some of the protective structures of childhood and become more independent. Major personal or family changes (such as parental divorce or a move to a new town) require rebuilding the positive supports that keep your teen on track.
  • Band together with other parents. Other moms, dads, and adults likely share some of your same concerns. Create a pact to work together to keep parties and get-togethers alcohol free (by, for example, ensuring that an adult is around when parties happen).
  • More ways to set good examples around alcohol >>

  • Support broader school and community efforts. Underage drinking is not merely a teen problem or a family problem. It is a community problem that requires many people and systems working together, including efforts in the schools to support and reinforce appropriate rules and consequences. As you’re able, link to and support these broader efforts, recognizing the value that broader efforts can provide for parents.
  • Intervene if you suspect that your child is using alcohol. Talk to your child right away and work with her or him (and other parents) to prevent further underage alcohol use.
    • Ask your child directly, describing the reasons for your concern. Ask for her or his side of the story. Avoid being judgmental, but share your perspective and expectations.
    • More ideas for what to do if you suspect your child is drinking >>

    • If your child has used alcohol, set appropriate consequences. Use it as an opportunity to help them learn from mistakes. What can he or she do the next time alcohol is offered to him or her? What will you do to ensure that there are not other similar opportunities to access alcohol?
    • If you suspect that your child has a serious drinking problem, get professional help. Many physicians and addiction counselors can offer information on treatment options. You can also find treatment options in your area through the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator.

Tell us: How do you talk about underage drinking with your kids?

Dr. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain is Vice President of Research and Development at Search Institute. Roehlkepartain is widely recognized as an expert in child, youth, and family development in community contexts. Particular areas of interest include family strengths, community supports for families and youth, spiritual development, service-learning, youth philanthropy, and linking youth development with financial literacy.

I agree about the importance of this topic, of talking with your kids about alcohol, and also examining your own alcohol use habits. My teen, now 19yo, did start experimenting with alcohol when she was 17. I was honest with her about my own youth, and the fact that the legal drinking age for me was 18yo, and I was able to purchase and be served at that age. Despite the current laws of legal drinking age being 21, she still perseveres the fact that at one time 18yo’s could drink, so it must’nt be that bad…I have always been open with her about the difference between drinking responsibly and overindulging, and we have talked about the symptoms and dangers of intoxication, versus, knowing your limit, and pacing yourself, being sure to eat, trying to drink a non-alcoholic beverage in between alcohol drinks etc. She is quick to say that “everyone” drinks but she does know other teens who drink to excess…I believe this is an important discussion to have, because we don’t want our youth to wait until they turn 21 and then just expect them to drink responsibly without any prior discussion.

This is a very important topic for many parents of teens. As a parent we often feel lost when if comes to figuring out how to keep our teens safe?
The good news…. If you have been thinking about this since your teen was a baby, you have likely already instilled many core values. Yes, there will always be those ‘friends’ you aren’t so sure about. Have faith in yourself and your teen; they will sense the trust and will want to keep it.
However, many of my clients are parents of children with ADHD and those impulsive decisions seem to be the norm, rather than the exception. My advice, keep your cool and make sure that your teen knows that everyone makes mistakes and no matter what you will be there to support them. At least this way, if they do in fact stray and make a choice you (and they) would rather they hadn’t they will know that they can turn to you. Individuals with ADHD tend to have regrets for choices they make. Be there for them!!
Sometimes the best thing you can do is help your teen find a coach or other adult who understands the way they are wired. Often, teens won’t listen simply because you are the parent, having another trusted adult often helps your messages to be heard. I have many parents of teenaged clients who are amazed that their kids will talk to me but not them. A third party can take some of the emotion out of the situation making everyone more understanding.
Carrie Silverberg BA(Psyc), RECE
ADHD Consultant and Coach


This is an important article. More than anything else, examine your own alcohol use. You are a role model and your children will most likely do what you do.

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