Many parents do take the proactive step to talk with their children about alcohol use. Even if young teens aren’t drinking, they could be experiencing pressure to drink, and it’s good to listen to them and talk about the dangers in a straightforward way.
But as a parent — especially as prom and graduation season creep up — what do you say to have an impact?
The Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services has released a 2013 survey which asked 1,200 Maine parents of children in grades 7-12 about their attitudes toward underage drinking, how they talk about alcohol use, whether alcohol is accessible to teens in their home, and the extent to which their child is drinking or likely to drink.
The survey showed what has been the case for years: Maine parents are worried about the risks associated with teenage drinking. About 85 percent of respondents — a rate similar to previous years — said that underage drinking is “never OK.” Parents said they generally are most worried about their child ending up in trouble with the police, becoming involved in unwanted or unprotected sex, having their child’s drinking lead to depression or suicide, and having their child lose a scholarship or other opportunities.
And their fears are based in facts. Teens who drink are more vulnerable to sexual assault and having unprotected sex; they are more likely to be the victims of violent crime and struggle with school; and they are far more likely to develop an addiction later on, compared with if they had waited until adulthood to drink.
But even if parents know that underage drinking is not OK and are well aware of and concerned about the risks, do they know how to talk with their children about them?
Each child is different, and parents have to go with their instincts, but the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has some good suggestions for addressing alcohol use with young teens. There isn’t one specific thing you can say to influence their decision-making. But research shows teens are more likely to delay drinking if they have a close tie with a parent. And if they do drink, a supportive relationship can help keep them from developing larger problems related to alcohol.
Building that strong connection comes in par, with communication — asking open-ended questions, encouraging conversations, and not erupting immediately with anger when your child tells you something you don’t like. The same concepts apply when talking about alcohol. Consider starting with questions: Ask your child what he or she thinks about alcohol and why teens drink. Listen, and respond respectfully.
Discuss the dangers and address misconceptions surrounding alcohol. For instance, it can take two to three hours for a drink to completely leave one’s system; people often don’t know how serious alcohol has affected them since it impairs their judgment; and beer and wine are not necessarily less dangerous than hard liquor, since a 12-ounce can of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and 1½ ounces of hard liquor all have the same amount of alcohol.
Appeal to your children’s intelligence, as opposed to trying to scare them. They want to maintain self-respect, so tell them they are too smart to need alcohol. And they deserve to know the dangers — such as that alcohol affects maturing young people differently than adults. Make sure they know they can call you at any hour to pick them up if they find themselves with others who are drinking.
Follow up with actions. Most young teens say alcohol is easy to get, so keep track of the alcohol in your home; get to know other parents, to make it easier to approach them with any concerns; know where your children are; develop and stick to certain rules; and set a good example.
A certain level of trust in yourself is also important. You can make a difference in the way your children perceive alcohol. Worrying is natural, but don’t let that stop you from broaching the topic and following through. Even if teens appear as if they don’t care, it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening.