Talking with your children about alcohol requires preparation. You must get information and facts to answer their questions. And you need information to give them practical advice on how to deal with the issues important to them. It is not enough to tell your teen, “You better not drink!”
Remember, you were a teenager once
It's important to try to understand what it's like to be a teenager today. Recent studies (2020) show that about 55 percent of high school seniors, 41% of 10th graders, and 21% of 8th graders have tried alcohol in the past year. Also 17% of high school seniors, 10% of 10th graders and 5% of 8th graders report binge drinking in the past two weeks.
Despite the fact that these statistics are much lower than they were in 2010, they still might increase your fears about what your teens might get into. You also need to remember that teens may have fears too. They worry about fitting in and facing peer pressure to drink.
Model healthy choices
Teens learn what it means to be a person who drinks by watching you. If you drink when you’re upset, your teen will learn that drinking is a way to solve problems.
What if you push people to drink after they say no? Or tease people who don’t drink? Or center your activities on alcohol? Your teen will learn that drinking is the way to fit in and have fun. Also, if you drink and drive, your teen will learn that it's OK to take that risk.
The best way to prevent your teen from engaging in risky behaviors is to model healthy choices. If someone in your family has a problem with alcohol, don’t try to hide it from your teen. Teens know when there is a problem, and they may feel responsible for the alcoholic's drinking or feel like it’s their job to stop it. Services like Al-Anon and Alateen can help.
Share your own experiences
Share your own experiences and mistakes to offer advice to your teen, not lecture them. They already know you are not perfect. Teens are able to recognize a contradiction when you yell at them for doing the same things you once did. Be honest, and your child will respect you more, no matter what you did when you were their age.
Here are some more tips for talking with your teenager about alcohol.
- Find the facts. Check out the books and websites listed below for more information. Also, answer your teen’s questions about alcohol as soon as possible.
- Listen carefully to their concerns and feelings, and respect their views.
- Let your teen know it’s OK to act independently from the group and say, “No, I don’t drink.”
- Establish a clear family position on alcohol use. For example, “Once you’re 21, it's OK to have a drink with friends. But it's not OK to drink to solve problems.”
- Behave in a way that's consistent with your family rules. How do you consume and talk about alcohol in front of your kids? Kids learn by watching you.
'Just say no' isn’t good enough
Telling your teenagers to just say no won't be enough. It's not enough to stop them from drinking when all their friends are. Practice how to say no in different situations with your teens. Give your teenagers options for saying no and let them choose which ones they feel the most comfortable using.
Here are some alternatives to just saying "no.”
- Saying, “I just don’t want to.”
- Suggesting another activity like basketball, shopping, or going out to eat. Or changing the subject.
- Avoiding situations where there might be drinking. Or hanging out with friends who don’t drink.
- Using you as an excuse. Tell your teen it's OK to say things like “My mom won’t let me go,” or “My dad would kill me if he ever caught me drinking.”
- Not drinking at a party, or pretending to drink.
- Using other activities as an excuse. Tell your teen it’s OK to say things like “My coach would bench me,” or “I have to be up early tomorrow for a big game/practice.”
- It’s okay to go to a party and choose not to drink at a party, or pretend to drink or bring your own drink. Let your teen know they don’t need to explain their choices to peers if they don’t want to.
- Always give your teen an out. If they are in a situation that makes them uncomfortable let them know they can text or call you (or another trusted adult) for a ride, no questions asked.
Here are some of the warning signs of alcohol abuse:
- Consuming alcohol on a regular basis.
- Drinking alone.
- Depression or mood swings.
- Hangovers, bad breath, and/or bloodshot eyes.
- Talking about alcohol frequently and in a positive way.
- Problems with school.
- Taking risks, such as driving after drinking
If you suspect your teen has a problem with alcohol, get help. Contact your physician, school counselor, or an independent drug counselor. Also check out the resources listed below to get help for your teen and your family.
Fletcher, A. C., Steinberg, L., & Williams-Wheeler, M. (2004). Parental influences on adolescent problem behavior: Revisiting Stattin and Kerr.
Nash, S. G., McQueen, A., & Bray, J. H. (2005). Pathways to adolescent alcohol use: family environment, peer influence, and parental expectations.
Schaefer, C. E., & DiGeronimo, T. F. (1999). How to talk to teens about really important things: specific questions and answers and useful things to say.
Steinberg, L. (2011). You and your adolescent: the essential guide for ages 10–25.
ParentFurther — Search Institute — A website to help families strengthen relationships through shared activities.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Guided by their mission to lead the nation’s research efforts on alcohol use and abuse, NIAAA supports research conducted within the Institute, as well as in institutions around the world. Alcohol & Your Health provides research-based information on drinking and its impact.
Stop Underage Drinking — Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking — This federal committee is working with governments and organizations at the state, territory, and local levels to reduce and prevent underage drinking and its consequences.
Reviewed in 2021