Mar 27, 2019, 9:33:58 AM CDT May 1, 2019, 2:22:18 PM CDT

How to talk to teens about alcohol

Learn the risks of teenage drinking and five tips for talking to your child

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According to the Beyond ABC report, 1 in 3 Texas students in grades 7 through 12 has used alcohol within the past school year. But just because teenage drinking is common does not mean it does not have serious risks. In fact, the stats show that teens who drink may be at higher risk of drinking-associated problems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 90% of alcohol consumed by teens occurs in the form of binge drinking, as opposed to moderate or light drinking. On average, there are approximately 4,300 deaths among underage teens each year due to excessive drinking.

David Atkinson, M.D., Medical Director of the Teen Recovery Program at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, says teens who binge drink, or even drink small amounts in high school, are more likely to binge drink in college.

"Teens do not do a great job at moderating their own use, especially when they have demonstrated problems with drinking in the past," says Dr. Atkinson. "They are going to have a tendency to overconsume, which creates a big problem for the body and brain."

As a parent, you can help your teen avoid drinking and its consequences by having open and honest conversations before drinking becomes an issue. Dr. Atkinson offers parents tips on how to discuss the dangers of drinking with their kids.

1. Talk about the reality of drinking

While there are serious consequences to teenage drinking, many teens don't respond well to lectures about the dangers of drinking. Instead, it's best to lay out the reality of teen drinking, especially binge drinking. Talk to your teen so they understand the realities drinking can lead to, including:

  • Aggressive behavior, fighting or committing a violent crime
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Contracting a sexually transmitted disease
  • Dependence and addiction
  • Impaired reasoning and poor decision-making
  • Injuries like falls, burns or firearm accidents
  • Suicide ideation
  • Unplanned sexual activity
  • Sexual assault

Dr. Atkinson says it is important to stress these risks to teens in a realistic way.

"Tell your teen that many people who drink don't experience these consequences, but those who do often face lifelong issues including legal issues and physical and emotional problems," says Dr. Atkinson.

It's also important to tell your teen that many kids their age aren't drinking at all. While many teens have used, not all have – in fact, as many as 40% of high school seniors report never drinking, and others have drank only a few times in small amounts.

"There is a large group of high school students who have never been drunk, and those students have succeeded in high school," says Dr. Atkinson. "This helps encourage your child that it is, in fact, possible to survive without alcohol."

2. Lead by example

As a parent, you need to send the message that alcohol is not important to a good quality of life – and not necessary to have fun.

"Parents can send the wrong message if they are saying things like, ‘I need some wine to relax,' or ‘It's going to be terrible, there's no beer,'" says Dr. Atkinson. "Parents are sending the message that they need to drink to relieve stress or that alcohol is necessary for enjoyment, and teens pick up on that."

Dr. Atkinson says that it doesn't mean parents can't ever drink, but parents should be aware that they don't send a message that alcohol is necessary for fun and stress-relief. Overindulging in alcohol in front of teens can also be problematic, as it makes overuse of alcohol seem normal and healthy.

3. You shouldn't lie, but you don't have answer everything

Many parents have a history with drinking and fear being a hypocrite with their teen. But Dr. Atkinson says that as a parent, it is not your job to avoid hypocrisy; it is your job to raise a healthy child.

You can be open and honest about your past (though you do not have to share every drinking experience) and explain why you stopped. This may be a more effective and meaningful way to connect with your teen.

"You can say, ‘yes, I drank, and this is what it put me at risk for,'" says Dr. Atkinson. "‘I made that mistake, and this is why I stopped getting drunk.'"

4. Outline consequences before drinking occurs

Before your teen even starts drinking, communicate your expectations and the consequences they will face if they do drink. "You don't want to blindside your teen so make sure you communicate beforehand. Consequences should be significant, but short-term, such as being grounded from activities for a week," says Dr. Atkinson.

If drinking does occur, deliver on the promise of your consequence immediately and consistently. Early consequences send the message that you really care and are more effective than constant lectures.

5. Set expectations for other parents

Finally, it is not just your teen you should be talking to. You should be clear with other parents whose houses your teen spends time at about what your expectations of drinking are.

While many parents still believe that having kids drink at home is safer, Dr. Atkinson says that simply is not true.

"Kids are programmed to take risks," says Dr. Atkinson. "One of those is getting caught. If you remove the risk of getting caught by allowing a teen to drink in a 'safe environment' – the home, then kids tend to find another risk. This could be maximizing the amount they drink."

Let other parents know that your teen should not be drinking and that you do not consider drinking at someone's home safe. Once you do, you will have other adults that can then help you supervise your teen's behavior and keep them safe.

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If you are concerned about your child's drug or alcohol use, the Teen Recovery Program at Children's Health can help them improve mental health and overcome addiction.

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