April is National Alcohol Awareness Month. Do you know how to talk to your child about the dangers of underage drinking?

Most parents are aware that conversations about substance use should be happening early and often. Where they get stuck is how to broach the subject so their kids will listen. This can be especially tricky when talking about a substance that most kids see their parents consuming.

But underage drinking is a serious public health problem in the United States. Alcohol is the most widely used substance among America’s youth – with nearly one-third of high school students reporting they consumed alcohol in the last month. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “most people younger than 21 who drink alcohol report binge drinking, often consuming large amounts. Among high school students who binge drink, 44% consumed eight or more drinks in a row.”

Using alcohol at a young age can impact how a teen’s brain develops, disrupt their sleeping patterns, delay puberty, make it harder to concentrate at school, and even increase the risk for liver and heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer. It interferes with their judgment and affects their mood and personality, triggering depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, and leading them to engage in risky behaviors such as driving while impaired, having unprotected sex, fighting, stealing, or skipping school. Research shows, that people who start drinking before the age of 15 are also more likely to develop an alcohol abuse disorder as adults.

An Ongoing Conversation

Therefore, it is critical for parents to talk to their children about the dangers of alcohol use throughout their childhood and adolescence, even when their kids don’t seem to want to hear it.

Here are some strategies to get the conversation going in ways that may make them more receptive:

  • Know your facts – Before you talk to your child about drinking, it is helpful to be informed about the effects of alcohol on a young person’s brain and body. As they get older, young people don’t just want to hear that underage drinking is bad. They want to know why. (Here is a helpful resource for how alcohol impacts brain development.)
  • Look for opportunities – Instead of sitting your child down for A TALK, let a conversation start more naturally. There are many opportunities for short discussions prompted by something you/they see on TV or on the news, when you and your child witness someone not drinking responsibly, or before the holidays when you know people in your family will be drinking. It is not necessary to have a drawn-out conversation. Casual conversations can still be learning moments.
  • Ask and listen – Don’t begin the conversation by talking. First, ask your child what they think, what they’ve heard or what they’ve noticed. You may learn something new from them. Let them know you hear them. Listen without judgment and then share your opinion or the facts you know.
  • Have age-appropriate conversations – You can talk to your preschooler about alcohol if you keep it short and straightforward. For example, when they ask you why they can’t try your drink. An age-appropriate response might be: “Alcohol is bad for kids. It would be very dangerous.” A child in elementary school is ready for more. You could tell them that alcohol is dangerous for kids because their brains are still developing and that it can be dangerous for adults too when they drink too much. Middle schoolers are more likely to be engaged by the facts. You may want to talk to them about the brain science and risk statistics. When they reach high school, teenagers may be receptive to help with developing strategies for social situations so they can abstain without feeling awkward. This is a time to focus on maintaining trust so they will come to you if they need help, but also on setting clear expectations about alcohol use.
  • Be prepared for tough questions – Adolescents and teens tend to question anything you tell them. Being ready can help the conversation. Consider how you would respond to questions like: “You drink; why can’t I?”, “How can having a couple of drinks at a party hurt me?”, “Why is alcohol use legal, if it’s so dangerous?” 
  • Remain calm and don’t get discouraged – It’s best to pause an exchange if you feel yourself getting upset about how your child is responding. If you hear something that upsets you, take a break to digest the information and form a nonjudgmental and empathetic response. If your young person is giving you the eye roll, don’t become discouraged. They are absorbing the message, even if they don’t seem to be, especially when it is repeated.

Finally, set the example. Research shows that parents remain the most important influence on a child’s behavior. Model healthy decision-making and responsible drinking and your child will learn from you.  

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