10/18/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2013

Talking To Your Kids About Alcohol? Here's Where To Start

It can be difficult for parents to be sure of how to approach the subject of alcohol with their kids, especially if the topic was taboo in their own households growing up. According to MJ Corcoran, an educator, parent coach, and official spokesperson for Anheuser-Busch InBev's Family Talk About Drinking program, "Some parents never bring up the subject of drinking, in hopes that it will go away." For a healthier, more realistic approach, however, read on for some smart tips on broaching the subject of alcohol with kids.

  • Start now. The most commonly cited reason parents put off talking to their kids about drinking? Because they think their children are too young. "Kids are never too young to have basic conversations about alcohol," she says. "I spent years in early childhood education, and I've seen preschool-age children mimicking their parents' drinking -- clinking glasses together and such. You can begin setting boundaries and talking about rules very early on."
  • Keep it age-appropriate. Young kids have notoriously short attention spans, so keep conversations short and concrete. If your preschooler asks to have a sip of "what daddy's drinking," don't launch into a 10-minute lecture. Instead, talk about drinking as you would any other adults-only activity, says Corcoran. As kids get older, open-ended questions and "what if" scenarios are best; asking, "What would you do if other kids were drinking at a party?" opens up the dialogue and gives you some insight into your kid's mind.
  • Skip 'the talk.' In the past, educators often referred to having "the conversation" about drinking. "But honestly, nothing could feel more awkward -- for kids and parents alike -- than to sit down at the table and say, 'Now we're going to talk about alcohol,' " says Corcoran. "Instead, it's much more effective to look for ongoing windows of opportunity." That may even mean talking to your children about a family member who overdid it at Christmas and needed a ride home. It's personal, but avoids the awkwardness of a more rigid conversation.
  • Define your house rules. At some point, every parent hears an argument for underage drinking that goes something like this: "My friend Stephen gets to drink wine with dinner. Why can't I do that?" Be clear that the only rules that matter are the ones in your house.
  • Remember you're a role model. Just like every other aspect of parenting, what we do is more important than what we say. Do most of your social events include alcohol? Do you frequently have a drink to unwind after work? "As parents, we get to choose what we show our kids," says Corcoran. "So monitor how much you drink in front of them -- seeing you imbibe frequently puts drinking in the 'this is OK to do' category."
  • Give kids choices. If your child is offered alcohol and has no experience making decisions on her own, chances are she's more likely to cave in to peer pressure. So let your kid make relatively "safe" choices now -- for a 7-year-old, that might mean selecting clothes; for a tween, picking an after-school activity. "If you swoop in and make every decision for them, they'll never learn to solve problems on their own," says Corcoran.
  • Take them rock-climbing. Or kayaking, or rollerblading... in other words, let kids experiment with exciting new activities. As they reach the teen years, they crave new experiences, and they want to be challenged, says Corcoran. Fill that craving with absorbing new activities -- kids who are busy and engaged are less likely to turn to alcohol. If your kid's not the outdoorsy type, that's OK -- maybe his thing is music or theater. "Just focus on 'How can I challenge him and help him grow with new experiences?' " says Corcoran.
  • Skip the threats. Believe it or not, teens want to have a close relationship with their parents, and they want to please you, too -- even if they never say those words. Kids who feel close and connected to their families are less likely to abuse alcohol; study after study shows that parents are by far the most powerful influence in their children's lives when it comes to underage drinking. "Once a teenager feels noticed and respected, it really transforms the relationship," says Corcoran. "You find yourself acting as a support for them, instead of just laying down rules." And more than likely, your child will be on their way to having a healthy attitude toward alcohol -- now and in their adult life.

For more information and to download the Family Talk brochure, click here.