How to Address Alcohol & Underage Drinking

    Alcohol is the most widely used substance among America’s teens and young adults, posing substantial health and safety risks.

    Teens try alcohol for a variety of reasons – to exert independence, to feel more carefree or escape from stress, peer pressure and even boredom. Many tend to do so without fully recognizing alcohol’s negative effects or health risks.

    So what do you do if you find out your child is drinking?

    Foster regular and productive communication

    Productive communication with your teen or young adult doesn’t always have to feel like you’re giving them the third degree. Remain calm, relax and follow the tips below to ensure that your child hears what you have to say — and vise versa.

    Try to be objective and open. If you want to have a productive conversation with your child, do your best to keep an open mind and hear their point of view. Your child is more likely to be receptive this way.

    Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that elicit more than just a “yes” or “no” response. It will lead to a more engaging and productive conversation.

    Ask why your child is interested in drinking. This gets your teen to think about their future, what their boundaries are around drinking and some of the possible negative consequences. This may include being late to practice, doing something stupid or dangerous, or feeling hungover. It will also give you insight into what may be behind your child’s drinking. You can then suggest ways of better managing those motivations.

    Let your kid know they’re being heard. Use active listening and reflect back what you are hearing — either verbatim, or just the sentiment. For example, you can say, I’m hearing that you feel overwhelmed, and that you think drinking helps you relax. Is that right?

    Discuss the negative effects of alcohol, and what that means in terms of mental and physical health, safety and making good decisions. Talk about the long-term effects.

    Offer empathy and compassion. Let your child know you understand. The teen years can be tough. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes, but alcohol is not a useful or healthy way to cope with problems. Let your child know that they can trust you.

    If there is a history of addiction in your family, then your child has a much greater risk of developing a problem. Be aware of this elevated risk and discuss it with your child regularly, as you would with any disease.

    Address issues calmly and directly

    Communicate clear expectations. Be clear and direct. Explain that you do not approve of underage drinking and that you expect them not to do it, even when around friends who drink.

    Discuss, and agree upon, consequences. Involve your child in a conversation about what should happen if they do drink while underage, and what will happen as a result. Be sure you can enforce these rules and that your child understands why you’ve set them.

    Help your child understand the legal implications. Drinking under the age of 21 is illegal. Explain how this law is in place for a reason, and why you do not approve of breaking it.

    Explain why drinking is very different for a teenager than for an adult. The teen brain continues to develop well into one’s 20s , and drinking has significant negative effects on its development.

    Keep an eye on how your child is coping. If your child continues drinking or if they seem to be struggling, these are signs that your child might need additional help or professional treatment. Be sure to seek help.

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    Does your child have an alcohol use disorder?

    It can be difficult to assess when your child is “just experimenting” or if they’re struggling with their drinking to the point of an alcohol use disorder. Any alcohol use is an issue when your child is underage. If your child is 21 or older, it’s important to keep an eye out for any signs of a problem as well.

    If you’re concerned, it’s always best to get an assessment from a professional. You may be worried that your child’s drinking is getting out of hand, so start by asking these questions:

    • Has your child’s drinking, or being sick from drinking, often interfered with their responsibilities, such as at a job, school, or home?
    • Does your child have times when they ended up drinking more, or longer than they intended?
    • Has your child more than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
    • Does your child spend a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over a hangover?
    • Has your child experienced a craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
    • Does your child continue to drink even though it causes trouble with family or friends?
    • Has your child given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting in order to drink?
    • Has your child more than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased their chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex), or harming others?

    You know your child best. Be sure to start a conversation if you have any concern about their drinking, and get one-on-one support if you need.

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    Last Updated

    September 2020

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