Have you ever tried telling your child not to do something, only to be challenged with the reply, "So then why is it OK that you do it?" As teens develop psychologically and try to make sense of the world, it's normal for them to criticize inconsistencies or hypocrisy. Parents who try to set rigid rules and limits are particularly vulnerable to this challenge. Enforcing a curfew, advocating for a healthier diet, limiting your child's TV or smartphone use... this all can be met with the retort: "But you do it." One example is parental advice on abstaining from alcohol, which can be problematic for your teen to understand and may be perceived as a classic example of the old saying, "Do as I say and not as I do."
As the holidays approach, parents and children will be thrust into social situations where one group generally consumes alcohol while the other watches. The holidays can be a festive and celebratory time of year, but be mindful that alcohol consumption can send mixed messages or create confusion about drinking. So be prepared to set a positive example.
Talk the Talk
The best way parents can positively influence their teens to not drink is by maintaining a strong relationship through open communication. Be sure to set clear expectations before these parties. Although there are more get-togethers around this time of year, rules are rules. Discuss them with your teen now so that he or she clearly understands the rules through the entire holiday season and beyond. And make sure that adult family members are all on the same page.
Depending on how the conversation progresses, many teens may ask if you tried alcohol when you were a teen. Your child may challenge you with: "You drank when you were my age and you turned out fine." Be honest when you reply, but know that it is also OK not to share details about past drinking. Instead, be clear about the risks that you may have encountered firsthand. Consider telling a story that highlights why drinking alcohol was a bad idea at the time.
Parents can also remind their teen that drinking alcohol is an age-dependent activity for a reason. No matter how responsible teens think they are, there is much that can go wrong. Remind them that while they, in fact, may be responsible, they can never be sure that their peers will be. This may help teens perceive alcohol use not as something forbidden forever, but rather as something that should be delayed until they are better equipped to understand and deal with the consequences of drinking.
Walk the Walk
Most importantly, be a good role model for your teen and set a good example with your own alcohol use. Keep in mind that social and environmental factors influence how teens view alcohol. Parents themselves should be careful to:
- Use alcohol moderately, especially in the presence of teens.
- Offer non-alcoholic drinks when entertaining other adults to show that adults do not need alcohol to have a good time.
- Arrange in advance for guests to get safe rides home. Make it clear that it is never OK to drink and drive or ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
- Make the focus of your parties the stories, special moments and memories that you and your friends share; do not make alcohol the focus.
- Avoid using alcohol as a method to cope with problems and stress. The holidays can be stressful, but alcohol is not the answer to this anxiety.
- Demonstrate that, under the right circumstances, it is OK for adults who are of age to enjoy alcohol responsibly.
Have questions for Dr. Soren? Please ask in the comments section!
For more tips and free resources on how to talk with your teen about underage drinking, visit the Health Alliance on Alcohol website.
Dr. Dina Romo, Clinical Fellow in Adolescent Medicine at New York- Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, contributed to this piece.