Embark Behavioral Health
April 27, 2021
Teens often encounter alcohol in middle and high school. They may come across it at parties, friends’ houses, or even your own liquor cabinet. While it’s easy to find and access, parents have more influence than they think when it comes to helping teens make choices about alcohol use.
The reasons why teens choose to drink can vary:
- Peer pressure and social drinking
- Increased independence
- Depression, overwhelming stress, or anxiety (called “self-medication“)
It may feel like teens don’t listen, but they do. And more than that, they’re watching you, too. Here’s what you need to know about helping your teen make good decisions about alcohol:
Building a Solid Foundation
Parenting teens requires more finesse than parenting little ones. It’s easy to see why they needed you when they were younger – they literally relied on you for emotional and physical needs and safety. But even though teens have mastered more complicated tasks (like getting lunch out of the fridge!), they still need your connection, correction, and guidance.
It’s your job to be a safe relationship and provide consistent and loving boundaries where they can optimize their development. You’re helping them connect what they do today with who they will be five or 10 years from now – and that includes how to think about alcohol.
How to Help Your Teen Make Smart Decisions About Drinking
Your teen is almost grown, but it’s still your job to set up boundaries and expectations for behaviors. Here are six ideas to lay that groundwork:
1. Spend time with your teen
What activities do the two of you enjoy doing together? It doesn’t have to be complicated – perhaps it’s simply taking a drive and grabbing a bite to eat.
Teens respect what you have to say when they know you value them, so take the time to get to know them. Listen to them. Ask them to educate you about what’s going on in their social circles and what’s important to them. The more tension in your relationship, the more you need to make an effort to create positive time together, too.
2. Talk with your teen about alcohol
Ask about your teen’s view on drinking (if they are interested/disinterested, etc.). Even one night of uncontrolled drinking can lead to bad decisions, legal trouble, broken dreams, trauma, and regret – so how do they prevent that from happening?
These kinds of conversations train teen brains to make broader connections, so they’re better at doing it for themselves in adulthood. They may not respond during the discussion, but these talks seep in over time.
3. Set standards for how they should behave
It’s helpful to set expectations for how they should behave in particular situations, like if they find themselves at a party that turns into a drinking party.
It also helps if they know what will happen if they don’t follow through on those expectations. This could mean losing a privilege, like their phone (choose what works for your family).
As teens experiment with their freedom, they’re going to mess up – that’s normal. But expectations are a normal part of life, too.
How many young people drink alcohol?
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 7 million young people ages 12 to 20 reported that they drank alcohol beyond “just a few sips” in the past month.
While adolescent alcohol use has remained relatively steady in the past few years, it has generally declined over time. Among adolescents ages 12 to 17, the percentage who were past-month alcohol users declined from 17.6 percent (or 4.4 million adolescents) in 2002 to 9.4 percent (or 2.3 million adolescents) in 2019.
4. Create strategies in advance
Problem-solve with your teen to decide how to handle situations where alcohol pops up. Do this with other situations, too. This helps them learn they have choices about how they behave and gives them a chance to consider these choices before peer pressure and other situational influences arise.
These strategies can also help them learn how to prioritize situations. They may find themselves buzzed because of a bad decision. But losing a privilege (or being grounded) is far easier to deal with than carrying around the burden of what could happen (legally and personally) if they make a worse decision, like getting behind the wheel.
5. Set up safety nets
Back in the 1980s, Students Against Driving Drunk handed out contracts for parents and teens. If teens found themselves too drunk to drive, they agreed to call home for a ride. Parents agreed to pick them up and not discuss the situation until the next day.
Giving teens the space to make a responsible decision, even amid a bad one, allows them to look for options and to ask for help when they need it. They learn that you’re there for them, and they can count on you to make that possible.
6. Model responsible drinking for your teen
Your teen is watching you, and teens possess a powerful sense of integrity.
Can teens smell hypocrisy? Like a bloodhound on the trail of a fox!
If you drink to get drunk or have other alcohol problems, your teen isn’t going to respect the advice you give. The adage, “Do as I say, not as I do,” does not hold water with observant teens. After all, if it doesn’t matter to you, why should it matter to them?
Teens have a much higher chance of substance use disorder when their parents abuse alcohol. If you want to influence your teen, you need to be honest, examine your behavior, and model good decision-making.
What if I Believe My Teen is Struggling with Alcohol Abuse?
When teens are in trouble, they send out signals that point to several possible problems. Behaviors that indicate alcohol abuse can also look like signs of depression, anxiety, or acute stress.
If your teen is struggling or if you’re concerned, contact a healthcare professional to better assess the situation and get them the help they need.