Teens, Parents and Alcohol: Tough Questions You Need to Answer

Rolled eyes, sullen silence or even outright denial; these are often the reactions parents encounter when they try to talk with their adolescent children about alcohol.
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Rolled eyes, sullen silence or even outright denial; these are often the reactions parents encounter when they try to talk with their adolescent children about alcohol. As a pediatrician, I get a lot of tough questions from parents about how to broach this subject with their teens. It can be a difficult situation for parents and one full of awkwardness, but it's critical for parents to at least start the conversation, as it will open the door for ongoing conversations in the future.

In my experience talking with parents of teens, I am frequently asked the following: Is underage drinking really a problem? Has it changed since I was teenager?

Actually, yes to both. Fewer teens are drinking now than when you were in high school, and that is a good thing. In 2013, 68% of 12th graders drank at least once compared to 88% in 1991. But still, a significant number of high school students drink, and many do so with the goal of getting drunk. Binge drinking (drinking at least five drinks in a short amount of time for a male, and four drinks for a female) remains a major problem, both in high school and on college campuses.

What particularly worries parents is the prevalence of extreme binge drinking (drinking 10 or more alcoholic drinks in a single sitting) that has been documented recently; a University of Michigan study published in JAMA Pediatrics reported that 10% of high school seniors admitted to extreme binge drinking. So while the overall numbers have gone down, the volume that teens drink has increased.

Actions speak louder than words. Should I, as a parent, not drink at all to set an example?

Some parents are frank with their children about completely forbidding underage drinking. Others believe that adolescent drinking is a "rite-of-passage" and a normal part of a teen's experimentation. Some parents may say that they do not want their children to drink at all, yet they may actually imply that it is OK or even facilitate it.

With this in mind, teens are very sensitive to hypocritical behavior. So, parents who tell children not to drink at all and then drink excessively may be sending confusing messages to their kids. Be careful and be aware of the "hypocrite challenge." It is important to be honest, be a role model and remember that keeping your child safe is of utmost importance.

Deciding whether or not to drink is a personal decision. Just keep in mind that the choices you make can shape your own child's judgment.

How should I respond when my teenager confides in me about her friends' experiences with alcohol or other risky behaviors?

Emphasizing safety may be the way to handle this conversation. Your child may be concerned about a friend and how much that friend is drinking. Listen sympathetically and non-judgmentally. Offer your child some strategies to help that friend. If at any point your teen feels that a friend may be in real danger, discuss ways that he or she, perhaps with your help, can notify a trustworthy adult who can take action. Also, remind your teen not to allow herself to be put at risk because of someone else's bad decisions. For example, your child should never get into a car with a friend who has been drinking.

Some parents say that supervising parties where alcohol is available, but taking the keys away from the teens there, is safer. Is this OK?

Many parents believe their children are going to drink anyway and that it is safer to have children drink in the family home, where they can be supervised by adults. Some parents also mistakenly believe that as long as teens don't drive, it is OK for them to drink. Unfortunately, accidents and injuries do not always involve a car -- other serious consequences of underage drinking include unwanted and unprotected sexual experiences, fighting, falls, property damage and even alcohol poisoning.

And there are the obvious legal ramifications of facilitating the consumption of alcohol by minors. Depending on the laws in your area, you may be civilly or criminally liable if something bad happens when minors are served alcohol on your property.

For more information and resources on how to talk to your teen about alcohol, please visit the Health Alliance on Alcohol website.

Have more tough questions? Please ask in the comments section!

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