By Chris Woolston, M.S.
If you're talking to your kid about the important issues in life, the subject of alcohol is bound to come up. In some ways, the "alcohol talk" is a lot like the "sex talk": Ideally, you'll have the discussion long before your child really needs it. Learning about alcohol at an early age can keep him or her from making mistakes and dealing with unpleasant consequences later on. But if your teen has already started drinking, the conversation has to change.
Some parents know for a fact that their teen is already drinking, but others have nothing more to go on than nagging suspicions. If in doubt, you can always try asking. If you're still not sure, look for these possible signs of a drinking habit, courtesy of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
- Odor of alcohol on your teen's breath
- Red and glazed eyes
- Alcohol missing from the house
- Sudden changes in mood
- Fatigue or other repeated health complaints
- Withdrawal from friends or family
- Hanging out with a new group of kids you don't know and your teen won't introduce you to
- New trouble at school, including slipping grades or discipline problems
- Loss of interest in sports or other activities
- Missing curfews or other irresponsible behavior
Of course, the teenage years are a moody time anyway, and not every teen who snaps at his parents or acts depressed has taken up drinking. But if you see a cluster of red flags, it's definitely time to talk to your teen and uncover the source of the problem.
Rules and the risks
Once you've determined that your teen is drinking, you're bound to have new worries about his health, safety, and future. But this isn't a time to fly off the handle. Instead of haranguing, start an open discussion.
For starters, your teen needs to understand the family rules. If you forbid him to drink at any time, it might help to remind him that it's illegal for anyone under age 21 to drink or possess alcohol. If you're willing to allow him to drink small amounts of alcohol in the home or at family functions, make sure he understands the limits.
Your child has already heard plenty of horror stories about the dangers of alcohol, but he could still use a few reminders from a trusted source. Tell him that alcohol will turn him into a dangerous driver -- both to himself and others. Here's why:
- Alcohol slows reflexes, so a person who has been drinking may not be able to react quickly in an emergency -- say, if another driver suddenly swerves in front of him.
- The muscles of the eye function more slowly, possibly resulting in blurred vision and impaired night vision and color perception.
- A person who has been drinking may have trouble judging his car's position on the road (swerving across the center line is a possibility) or may not be able to tell how close he is to other vehicles and objects.
- People who drink and drive may be drowsy and unable to concentrate on their driving.
- The depressant effect of alcohol hinders a person's ability to make rational decisions, such as "Do I have time to turn before this oncoming car arrives?"
If this information doesn't discourage your teen from drinking and driving, remind him or her that alcohol-related car crashes are a leading cause of death for young people. Know what the legal consequences of a drunk driving conviction are, and make sure your teen knows, too.
Be sure he understands that people who are drunk often make other poor decisions, like getting into fights, taking risks they normally wouldn't take, or having unprotected sex. If he says he's too smart for such slip-ups, remind him that alcohol can cloud anyones better judgment. And according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, kids who drink are also more likely to be victims of rape, aggravated assault, and robbery -- even more reasons to avoid alcohol.
You may also want to discuss some of the long-term consequences of heavy drinking. It's certainly not good for his liver, waistline, or mental health. And if he's ever gone on a serious binge, he already knows how hard it is to think the next day.
No matter what you say, there's a good chance that your teen will drink at least once in a while. Instead of simply talking about the risks, work out an agreement that will help keep your child safe. You might want to have her sign a contract saying that she will lose her car keys if she ever drives after drinking or takes a ride with anyone else who was drinking. That way there's no question that she understands the consequences of breaking the rules. For your side of the bargain, you can promise to pick her up anytime, anywhere, no questions asked.
Keep the communication lines open even when your son or daughter is out of the house. If your teen is hanging out with friends, make sure you have a way to reach her, and dont hesitate to check in every once in a while. (This is one reason to be thankful for cell phones.) If she's going to be gone for a long time, ask her to check in with you often. Give your teen a curfew. Get to know the kids your teen hangs out with -- and their parents.
You might want to share your own experiences with drinking -- how you resisted peer pressure to drink, or the consequences of the times you didn't. Sometimes if your kid hears that you've been in the same spot she is, she might figure out that you do know what you're talking about.
At every point of the conversation, try to stay calm and supportive. Anger and accusations will only cloud the message. If your teen sees alcohol as a battleground issue, she may keep drinking simply to rebel. She'll also be less likely to stay honest if you berate her about her drinking.
You might also want to find out whether something else is bothering your teen. If she continues to drink outside the home, consider suggesting counseling.
Even if it's too late to keep your child from experimenting with alcohol, it's never too late to make sure he or she has all the facts. Knowing the risks may inspire a teen to cut back or quit altogether.
Federal Trade Commission. Dangers of Teen Drinking. http://www.dontserveteens.gov/dangers.html
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Make a difference: Talk to your child about alcohol. 2009. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/MakeADiff_HTML/makediff.htm#Introduction
Department of Health and Human Services. Start talking before they start drinking. http://family.samhsa.gov/stop/talk.aspx
Driving and Alcohol. Department of Community Medicine. West Virginia University Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center School of Medicine. http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/som/cmed/alcohol/driving.htm
American Academy of Family Physicians. Drinking: Facts for Teens. September 2010. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/addictions/alcohol/273.html
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Teens: Alcohol and Other Drugs. May 2008. http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/teens_alcohol_and_other_drugs
Alcohol Policy Information System. Underage Consumption of Alcohol. January 2008. http://www.alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov/index.asp?SEC=%7B0D5C719E-FCE8-4E15-A367-4145C655505F%7D&Type=BAS_APIS