How to talk with your teen about alcohol

Parenting isn’t easy, and some days it might feel like no matter what you do, you can’t put a foot right. Especially when dealing with teenagers. This can make broaching sensitive topics like alcohol difficult to discuss. In a 2021 study conducted by Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), they found that more than one in four adolescents under 18 years old were allowed to drink at home. This included an estimated 28% of Australian teens aged 16–17 who had permission from their parents to drink at home, and one-fifth of teenagers aged 16–17 years who were allowed to take alcohol to parties or social events.

When you hear “but everyone else is doing it”, it can be difficult being the parent to say no. However, no amount of alcohol is safe for those under 18. While brains and bodies are developing, young people are at risk of harm from alcohol. By creating a safe space where you are encouraging and supporting a young person not to drink, you are helping to protect them from illness, injury, and accidents.

Alcohol at home

Young people notice the world around them and the words and behaviours of parents are taken on board. Even though at times it might not feel that you are being looked up to, you and other significant adults in a child’s life play important roles in shaping attitudes and behaviours.

When it comes to alcohol in the home, how is it perceived? From as young as four years old, a child witnessing alcohol being consumed and enjoyed regularly can start the development of ideas around alcohol consumption.

It is important that your child is exposed to environments where they see:

  • you enjoying yourself without alcohol,
  • alcohol isn’t the focus at all social occasions
  • you demonstrating the ability to say no and refuse a drink
  • you choosing to have days without alcohol

Sometimes it’s the comments we make that have a lasting impression. Growing up in a house hearing “I’ve had a hard day, I’m going to have a drink”, can be heard as “alcohol is a good way to unwind when things are difficult”.

Tips for talking to your teen about alcohol

It’s never too late (or early) to start talking to your child about alcohol. By setting clear expectations and being prepared for conversations can help create a safe space for open dialogue.

Prepare yourself
No one expects you to be an expert and have every answer, but giving the topic of underage drinking some thought and preparing some answers to potential questions in advance can be a good idea. How will you respond if your child tells you about other kids drinking, or asks about them potentially drinking? What are your beliefs and how can you communicate these in a positive way to your teen?

Avoid lectures
Using opportunities while watching tv, driving in the car, or at the dinner table to normalise conversations and not lean into giving a lecture can help create a safe space. This fosters open and honest communication for sharing views, ideas, and opinions. Everyone should be respected and allowed space within a conversation to gain insight and understanding into the other person’s thoughts.

Know some facts
While you don’t want to just be reciting a bunch of figures to your teen, you do want to be informed and have some factual information to share with them. This way you are helping to provide them with all the information so that they can also learn to make informed decisions for themselves.

While the brain is still developing, early alcohol exposure can lead to long-term mental health issues (depression & anxiety). It can also impact core functions such as learning, planning and memory.

As young people’s brains develop, so do their skills around assessing risks and making decisions. As alcohol slows down the brain, this makes it even more challenging to concentrate, control impulses, and make clear positive decisions.

Answer the tough questions
Just as your child may feel pressured to drink, as a parent you can also feel the pressure to allow them to. Below are some of the tough questions you might hear, and some ideas you might want to consider.

“Everyone I know has tried alcohol, why haven’t I?”
It might seem like everyone you know has, but I am sure others also haven’t. I can’t control what everyone else does, but I love you and want to keep you safe.

“You drink. Why can’t I”
Well, I am an adult and my body has stopped growing. While your brain is developing, alcohol can be harmful and I would like you to avoid consuming anything that might negatively affect you or your development for as long as possible.

If you believe that your drinking may be a problem, help is available and being honest and sharing your personal struggles with alcohol may benefit both you and your teen.

Are you concerned about your teens’ alcohol consumption?

If you are concerned that your child is consuming alcohol or other substances it’s a good idea to be aware of some of the signs to look out for.

If you know that your child is drinking, try to find out how much and how often. Try to find out if they are dealing with any issues such as peer pressure or emotions that they are struggling to process. Be open and realistic about the associated risks and create an approach and plan together for moving forward.

If you are concerned about your teen, we are here to support you and your family.