How to talk about alcohol with your teen

Parenting isn’t easy. Some days, it might feel like no matter what you do you can’t put a foot right. This makes sensitive topics like talking about alcohol use difficult to broach with your teenager. However, the Australian Department of Health and Ageing reports that at least once a month, 23% of Australian teens aged 14-17 drink at levels that can cause acute harm. Therefore, although it might be difficult, it is important to introduce the subject and have a conversation with your teen. Here are some ways you, as a parent or guardian, can have a positive influence on your teenager’s use of alcohol.

How to talk about alcohol and its dangers

Be prepared for the unknown when you sit down to talk about alcohol with a teenager. If they are already experimenting with alcohol use, you may get responses like, “But you drink”, “Oh, come on, you drank when you were my age,” or “You’re making too big a deal about this.” Throughout the discussion, focus on staying calm, avoiding judgement and discussing the facts.
Focus on:

  • Stating your position on alcohol use calmly and succinctly. Be clear. Explain what is and isn’t acceptable in your opinion, be open to hearing their views and state your boundaries. E.g. If you are unable to accept their use of alcohol in any way, say so. The important thing is that you talk about alcohol together.
  • Have facts at hand. For example, your teenager’s brain is still forming. Studies by the National Health and Medical Research Council show that if your teen is under 18, any use of alcohol can cause life-long memory problems.
  • Acknowledge your own use of alcohol, currently or in the past. When you talk about alcohol, share about your own experiences and if you had challenges with alcohol use when you were a teenager. Explain what happened and why you don’t want them to make the same mistakes.
  • If they are drinking, try to get an idea of why and how much. Are they drinking responsibly? Is there peer pressure? Are they trying to deal with difficult emotions? Talk about alcohol and the issues together and try to come up with other ways to deal with things.
  • Be open, and be realistic about how to deal with risks. Develop an approach and agreement together that focusses on communication and safety. You might consider asking them to take responsibility to call you if they need to leave a location where there’s alcohol, or if they are unable to drive or function. Your responsibility will be to pick them up, no questions asked. Be clear that your agreement to do this doesn’t indicate your approval, but it’s important to you that they don’t take risks.
  • How to parent your teen regarding alcohol

If you aren’t involved in the teenager’s life, do what you can to become involved. Obviously, this will depend on the relationship you have with your teen. Some teenagers want to spend time with their parents and some do not. However, giving your teen your time and concern will have a positive influence on how likely they are to be responsible with alcohol. In being involved, here are some guidelines:

Build self-confidence to help teenagers resist peer pressure

  • Notice how much of your teen’s life involves unsupervised time. Try to spend more time with them and/or encourage them to get involved in healthy activities.
  • Build their self-confidence. Listen, and acknowledge their emotions. Self-esteem helps people resist peer pressure, and makes them less likely to turn to alcohol to deal with feelings of inadequacy.
  • Be on the lookout for signs of drinking and alcohol abuse. Does your teen suddenly have a new group of friends? Are their grades dropping? Are they sleeping much later in the mornings? Are there other changes in behaviour? Experimenting with new things – new friends, new ways of spending time – is a part of being a teenager, but listen to your intuition if some of the changes in their life are troubling you.
  • Understand that you are a role model. Your own use of alcohol – whether you drink, and how you choose to drink – will have a strong influence on your teen. Be realistic; if you have a problem, get help, and let your teen witness your efforts to kick your addiction. Likewise, if alcohol is a problem for your teen, that’s a serious situation; get help. Contact a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or get help from a professional addiction treatment provider such as Arrow Health.