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Discussing Drinking




At what age should I talk to my son about drinking? My daughter and I have always had a great relationship. But  when it comes to alcohol I just haven’t known what to say, so I  have avoided it. I’ve just told her not to do it. Now that she is on her way to college, is it too late to have any kind of meaningful discussion about drinking?


I rarely drink now and I never drank in college. My daughter thinks I don’t know what I am talking about when it comes to drinking. What should I tell her that will have the most impact on her decisions about alcohol?


I strongly disagree with the drinking age being twenty-one. 


She’s on her way to college in the fall – so what should I say now?


I am not quite sure what I should say to my children about drinking. I want my kids to have a healthy attitude about alcohol, so I am not convinced that “just say no” is appropriate.


How do I talk to my kids about drinking without sounding like I am preaching?




My father offered me a glass of wine when I turned seventeen. I am really grateful that I have a father who respects me and my judgment.


I know my father drank in college, so how can he tell me not to drink until I am twenty-one?

As you know, adults who drink responsibly do so as part of normal socializing – to enhance a meal, to share good times with friends, or to celebrate special occasions. I suspect that you have already discussed drinking with your teen to some degree. If the conversations began at an early age, they have probably become more complex and informative. But while you have been talking to your teen, your teen has also been observing your, your family’s, and your friends’ drinking attitudes and behaviors, and continues to be influenced by them. Yes, your conversations may have informed your teen about alcohol, but your actions are what influence your child the most. If you don’t drink alcoholic beverages, help your teen understand why you do not drink and how you feel about his or her decision to drink or not. Even as a non-drinker, it’s important to educate your teen about both abstinence and low-risk drinking practices.  


For a variety of reasons, discussing alcohol with your older teen can be a challenge. Teens may try to avoid the discussion, while you may feel insecure about how to approach the subject. Teens may feel like they are being talked down to, while parents may fear questions about their own drinking history. But since the majority of college students drink, or at least will know someone who does, it is crucial that you provide your son or daughter with ongoing alcohol education starting long before high school or college. 


Parents who do not communicate openly with their children about alcohol use and its effects allow their children’s misconceptions about alcohol to persist. A lack of accurate information can result in dangerous consequences for young people.



Open Communication


During a workshop I was conducting for parents, a perplexed mother offered an interesting observation. She said that talking to her son about alcohol was like talking to him about sex – only more difficult. Yes, discussions about alcohol can be difficult but, as with so many difficult parenting issues, they are absolutely necessary. Ideally, you should begin talking to your children about the dangers of alcohol while they are still young.  


Research studies continue to indicate that parents can have an enormous influence on their teen’s behavior. Talking about alcohol with teens can help prevent serious problems both now and in the future. As mentioned earlier, the best protection for teens is ongoing discussion about abstinence and low-risk drinking long before their departure for college. Share your values about alcohol consumption, provide accurate information about alcohol, and model healthy consumption behaviors. When it comes to alcohol, you as a concerned parent can be a better teacher than any Ph.D. or college administrator.


Teens with healthy relationships with their parents will have a greater chance of making healthy decisions regarding alcohol. Developing open and trusting communication is essential for helping teens avoid high-risk alcohol use. When they have a strong bond with their parents, teens are more apt to feel good about themselves and less likely to succumb to peer pressure. Additionally, a healthy parent-child relationship is likely to encourage teens to try to live up to parental expectations because teens want to maintain their close ties with their parents.  


Despite the tragedies highlighted on television, in the newspapers, and online, understand that most young teens don't drink yet – and the key reason that teens report abstaining is parental disapproval of youthful alcohol use. At times it may seem as if your teen completely discounts what you say, but most teens really are listening. They may not respond immediately and may even show some resistance to what you are saying, but regardless of your child’s reactions, maintaining a healthy dialogue is of utmost importance.


The teen years can be a roller coaster of emotions. One of the most difficult challenges for parents is to respect their teen’s growing drive for independence while still providing support and setting appropriate limits. Here are some tips for developing the kind of relationship with your teen that will contribute to a healthy attitude about alcohol.


  • Let your teen know you are concerned about alcohol. If drinking is not discussed, then teens may think that you don’t care one way or the other about their drinking choices.

  • Establish open communication. Make it easy for your teen to talk honestly with you about alcohol.

  • Encourage conversation. Encourage your teen to talk about how he or she feels about alcohol. 

  • Listen. Actively listening to your teen paves the way for conversations about topics that concern you, including drinking.

  • Offer acceptance. Make sure your teen knows that you appreciate his or her efforts and accomplishments. 

  • Respect. If you show respect for your teen's viewpoint, he or she will be more likely to listen to and respect yours. Make an effort to respect your teen’s growing need for independence and privacy.

  • Stay off the soapbox. When having discussions about alcohol, remember they are just that – discussions. Avoid lecturing or preaching. No teen wants to engage in a conversation in which they are simply “talked at.”

  • Ask open-ended questions. Encourage your teen to tell you how he or she thinks and feels about drinking.

  • Count to ten. If you hear something that distresses you, try not to respond with anger or fear. Take a few deep breaths and acknowledge your feelings in a constructive way.


I just want to reinforce that when talking with your teen about alcohol, it is just as important to listen as it is to talk. Listen carefully without interrupting. Not only will this help your teen feel heard and respected, but it will also open the door to future conversations.



Discussing Binge Drinking 


The top drug of choice for college students is alcohol, with marijuana a distant second. Although parents may get some relief from the fact that the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs is significantly less than alcohol use, it is important to recognize that many college students consume alcohol in a very high-risk manner, also known as binge drinking. 


According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, binge drinking, or heavy episodic drinking, is defined as: 


  • five or more drinks per sitting for males; 

  • four or more drinks per sitting for females; 

  • frequent binge drinking is three or more occurrences of this type 

of drinking in a two-week period. 


It should be noted, however, that the terms above are general. The size of the drink, the body weight of the drinker, and the duration of the drinking experience are not taken into consideration in this definition. The assumption here is that drinking occurs within a short period of time, usually a few hours or less, and leads to alcohol intoxication.


Research indicates that having discussions that focus on the consequences of heavy drinking may assist in “inoculating” new college students against participating in the binge drinking seen on most college campuses.  


Discuss the consequences of alcohol use without overstating the case. Avoid scare tactics. Most teens are aware that many people drink without problems. Therefore, the risks associated with heavy drinking should be presented as just that – risks – and the risks are more likely to occur the more often someone drinks heavily.


Use the Tips for Discussing Drinking in Appendix A to get the conversation started with your teen.

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