When it comes to kids and alcohol, the news is mixed.
The bad news is that 66 percent of kids have consumed more than just a few sips of alcohol by the end of high school, and over a quarter have done so by eighth grade, according to a clinical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published in September.
The good news is that number represents a decline in the number of kids drinking, and research shows that kids are less likely to drink if a parent has spoken with them about not doing so.
Eighty percent of adolescents say their parents are the biggest influence on their decision to drink or not, according to the AAP. “Kids now are a little more forthright than we were,” says Anne Murdoch, Evanston mother of two teens and a tween. “My perspective is that parents are more involved today than when we were kids.”
“Parents play an important role in their teen’s life, even if they may not vocalize it,” says Candice Besson, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids spokesperson, citing the 2013 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study that found that teens who report that their parents show concern for them and are monitoring their behaviors are less likely to engage in substance abuse.
These tips from the experts can help guide conversations with kids about alcohol.
Start early, by age 9.
Parents should start talking with kids early, by age 9. That may seem young, but the AAP says that kids are very aware of alcohol by that age but also start to think positively about alcohol between ages 9 and 13. Parents should make their views known and shape their children’s views. It’s easier than trying to change a child’s already-formed opinion.
Take drinking seriously.
Underage drinking is something that parents should not just accept as a right of passage given the risks that come with doing so. The AAP report shows that alcohol use is associated with the leading causes of death and serious injury at this age, including motor vehicle accidents, homicides and suicides. The adolescent brain is not fully developed until approximately age 22, and can be more vulnerable to the effects of drugs and alcohol.
“Parents can’t afford to treat teen drinking lightly,” cautions Besson. “Early use of alcohol and drugs increases the risk of problems later on in life. Parents need to take action when they suspect their teen is consuming alcohol.”
Connect with your child.
“Showing your child you care may seem simple, but it’s one of the best ways to keep your kids drug free,” says Besson. “Simple gestures such as an unexpected hug, saying I love you every day, and being supportive of your child can help her to become a confident person.”
Reinforcing positive behavior is also important. “Make sure to compliment your teen for the all the things he does well and for the positive choices he makes. Let him know that he is seen and appreciated,” she adds. “And let him know how you appreciate what a good role model he is for his younger siblings and other kids in the community.”
If your child is not feeling the connection, however, that does not necessarily mean that you aren’t getting through. “Don’t be discouraged by a door slam from your teen,” says Blackman. “It means they are listening, and probably know you’re right.”
Use your pediatrician as someone who can reinforce the message that kids should not drink alcohol.
It’s not just parents who are involved in the conversation with kids about alcohol. “Our pediatricians have open conversations with our kids about drinking and drugs, after they excuse parents from the room,” says Murdoch.
The AAP also urges pediatricians to discuss the dangers of alcohol use during visits with children as young as age 9 and throughout the teenage years.
Be prepared and take advantage of teachable moments.
“You never know when your kid will open up,” says Ralph Blackman, CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. “Always be armed with the right tools to keep the conversation going.”
“Our biggest piece of advice for parents looking to talk to their teen about not drinking underage is to be on their toes and look out for moments when you can chime in organically,” he says. “There’s always an opportunity, there’s always a teachable moment, especially about topics like alcohol.”
References to drugs and alcohol appear in headlines, sitcoms, movies and advertisements — and they can all be conversation starters.
Role-play with your kid.
It may feel a little silly to both you and your kid, but walk through some potential situations and conversations with your children to help them practice how they would handle them. Practicing what a child will say when offered alcohol or what to do when their ride home has had a drink can be hugely helpful. Besson says that when parents discuss possible scenarios with kids, it increases the likelihood that teens will make safe decisions.
Talk, and also text.
Although face-to-face discussion about alcohol is essential, the experts suggest that text messages can also be a good way for parents to reinforce positive messages about making good choices, especially for kids who spend a lot of time on their phone. It’s a good way to chime in even when kids are out for the evening. The Illinois Liquor Control Commission website offers several suggested texts, including “Be careful tonight. If your friends offer you a drink, just say you promised me no.”
Model responsible behavior as an adult.
Kids are watching, and they’re likely to do as parents do, not as they say. “Parents need to model good drinking behavior. They shouldn’t describe alcohol as something they need to relieve stress or have fun, and they should avoid drinking to excess in front of their children,” says Besson.
Remember that each child is unique.
What works with one child may not work with another, as kids from the same family often react to the conversation about alcohol differently, says Blackman. That’s something Murdoch knows all too well. Her style may change based on the child with whom she is speaking, but the goal remains the same.
“How you handle the discussion of alcohol varies based on each individual child. But with all our kids, we’re just trying to make sure that they are safe,” she says. “That’s our top priority.”
More from Make It Better: