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But you and dad drink: Talking to teens about alcohol

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

Talking with your children about alcohol requires preparation. You must get the information to answer their questions with the facts. 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 show that about 75 percent of high school students have tried alcohol. Also, more than 25 percent of high school students are binge drinkers.

Those statistics might increase your fears about what your teens might get into. But you need to realize that teens have fears, too. They worry about the social pressure they face 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. 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.

Getting help

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.

Related resources

ParentFurtherSearch 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 DrinkingInteragency 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.

Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in family social science

Revised 2016 by the author

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