Let's face it: Talking to your teens about drinking, regardless of their age, can be difficult and awkward. We want you to know that this conversation doesn't have to be impossible, weird or fraught with tension. Chances are you're probably already finding some ways to relate to your kids, which is great. Now is the time to prepare yourself for this conversation and use this trust to open up a dialogue about alcohol.
I myself have learned that just starting the conversation (as awkward as it feels sometimes) is a critical step. A parent who communicates expectations and concerns makes an impression, and that goes a long way. Also, it's important to recognize that kids are listening, even if they roll their eyes or laugh at you.
One easy way to start the conversation is by simply asking the question that many families ask every night: What's on TV? Pop culture, whether it's on TV, Netflix, YouTube or in a magazine, touches on the issues that teens face -- including underage drinking. These outlets can give you the opportunity to talk with your teens about alcohol, not talk at them. This will often help to lower defenses and create a safe, honest and open environment for sharing.
But how do you make that initial connection? How do you show your teens that you're not looking to lecture? Well, here are some tips for the inevitable evenings when you sit down with your teens to watch Modern Family, Pretty Little Liars or whatever the new exciting favorite is:
After you watch a program, get them talking about it while the storyline is still top of mind. Find out if they have established any beliefs regarding underage drinking. Young adolescents are likely to say they know underage drinking is wrong, dangerous and illegal. This is also a chance to encourage them and remind them that four out of five teens don't drink.
2. Ask about your teens' friends.
As you watch a TV show, ask: "Do teenagers really drink like this? You can be honest." And then, even if they are quiet at first, let them start talking. Try to find out more about your children's friends. Encourage friendships with kids who don't drink or engage in other risky activities. Young teens are greatly affected by their peer group.
3.Find out what your teens have seen and know.
Find out what your teen has been exposed to. Engage your teen by asking if she has been to parties with alcohol, like the ones seen on television. If the answer is no, reinforce this positive decision through praise. Remind them again that most kids their age do not drink alcohol. If yes, you have an opening to discuss the topic in more depth and practice ways to say "no."
4. Encourage your teen to make good decisions.
If your teens have resisted pressure to drink, praise them. Make a plan for the future, stating that if they are ever at a party where alcohol is offered, they can call or text you and you will pick them up without consequence. You may even suggest declining the alcohol and holding on to a cup of soda or water at a party, so as not to stand out. Reward their honesty, and encourage them to continue to make informed, good decisions. Letting your teens know that you trust them is a powerful tool and encourages them to live up to that trust.
5. Do not punish your teens but do try to educate them.
If your kids admit to trying alcohol, or actually getting drunk at a party, don't reprimand. In a non-threatening manner, try to find out more. Let them know that you appreciate the honesty, and then discuss what happened and how you feel about it. Often, a teen who gets drunk is embarrassed about it and does not need much convincing that it was probably not a very smart decision. Make a plan to help avoid underage drinking again and let your teen know that you will always be there to help.
Talking about alcohol with your children is never easy, but educating teens and then trusting them to make informed decisions is critical. Remember that these conversations about alcohol cannot be a one-time thing. Kids' attitudes towards alcohol and experiences with it change over time, and the conversations parents have about drinking should be revisited as they get older. As difficult as it may seem, these conversations will help your teens establish a safe attitude toward drinking that can benefit them for the rest of their lives.
For more tips and free resources on how to talk with your teen about underage drinking, visit the Health Alliance on Alcohol.