Speak Now, Here’s How

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Establishing lines of communication with your kids is vital in avoiding the long list of problems associated with teen drinking. Having conversations about alcohol as early as practical and as often as possible is one of the most important steps to keeping a child alcohol free.

This information is meant to help you have meaningful conversations with your teen about underage drinking. Once you get over the hurdle of that first conversation, remember that your work as a parent or guardian is not finished. Continuing conversations that lead to mutual trust, accountability and the results you are hoping for should become a regular part of your relationship with your child. As with many things in life, there is no “one size fits all” formula. You will know best how to customize what works based on the love and experience only YOU have with your child.

If you don’t feel comfortable or confident with these conversations you certainly are not alone. Parents often ask themselves … How do I know what to tell them? What do I do if they don’t even talk to me? How do I get them to care; to be responsible?

Here are some ways to speak now with your teen:

Understand Your Approach

Better communication skills make these types of conversations less stressful, increase your influence with your teen, and lead to better outcomes. Here are a few steps to consider.

First of all … PAUSE. Take some time to think about the following:

  • Your personal point of view. Ask yourself … What do you really think about alcohol and underage drinking? Could your own experiences get in the way? Are you prepared to listen to your teen’s point of view? Are you prepared to back up your advice with your own actions to be a positive role model?
  • Your motives for having this conversation. Understand what you want to have happen. What are you really trying to achieve? Are you trying to protect your kids from what’s out there or give them the skills they need to make smart decisions?
  • Your fears or concerns. Fear or anger over a situation that may or may not have already occurred may cause you to focus on punishing. Are you focused on reacting to one incident or creating a lasting solution?
  • Your potential for sending mixed messages. It is easy to do. Have you ever reached for a drink in front of your kids saying, “I had a tough day?” This can make alcohol seem like a good way to relieve stress and something you need to relax. Do you offer only alcoholic drinks when friends or family come to visit? Do you tell drinking stories or encourage your own friends to drink more in front of kids? Laughing about or encouraging heavy drinking can make alcohol seem necessary to have fun and teach your kids that peer pressure is okay.

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Believe in Your Influence and Others

Kids who are introduced to alcohol at home are much more likely to drink alcohol, and drink more often. That’s why it is so important that you never, ever offer your kids a drink, and why it’s so important to “speak now.” The best way to make sure your child doesn’t drink alcohol before they are 21 is to talk to them about it.

There may be a lot of eye rolling and avoidance of real conversations but research proves again and again that parents are still a powerful influence in their teens’ lives. In fact, no one will ever have a greater influence on their decisions about alcohol than you. They may not be talking to you, but they are listening and watching.

As children become teens they begin to encounter many new influences in their lives. As a parent it’s important to get to know your teen’s friends and others who influence them – not just who they are, but why they matter to your kids.

Think about:

  • Their friends and other peers. Once you get to know them, continue to keep track of what your teen is doing after school and who they spend time with. If you suspect a negative influence, find ways to limit the amount of time your teen spends with those friends. Get them involved in after school activities. When they’re just “hanging out” with friends, they’re more likely to experiment with alcohol (or drugs). Discuss with your kids how they can avoid drinking when there is a lot of pressure from friends to do so.
  • Older brothers and sisters. Remind older siblings they serve as important role models for their younger brothers and sisters. If they are of legal drinking age, ask them to drink in moderation and never encourage drinking or offer alcohol to their younger siblings.
  • Relatives. Teens may think other relatives (such as an uncle or an older cousin) are cooler than their parents. Since they don’t set the rules for your kids, they may not think about the impact of their behavior. Talk to them about the rules and expectations you have for your kids and ask them to help enforce these rules.
  • Community leaders. Enlist people such as teachers, coaches and clergy who are around your child on a regular basis. They can help reinforce your rules regarding alcohol, and can also help you notice changes in your child’s behavior.
  • Other parents. Some parents might allow their children to drink, or even provide alcohol to their child’s friends. Get to know the parents of your child’s friends – and their views on underage drinking. While they might have different rules for their own children, make it clear what your rules are for your child.

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Coaching to Stay Connected

By the time your child becomes a teen you’re not just a parent but also a coach. Thinking of yourself as a coach becomes the most powerful way to connect with your teen. The most important things you can do as a coach are stay connected and be an active listener – even when it seems like teens aren’t really interested in talking.

Teens continue to count on you as a parent or guardian. Your influence depends upon the strength of your relationship. Are you really listening to their concerns and ideas? When teenagers evaluate your rules and advice, they need to know you are basing them on a real understanding of what they are thinking and feeling. If they feel unheard, they are more likely to turn to friends or people they feel can relate to them.

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Moving the Conversation Forward

As a parent you genuinely want your kids to make smart decisions in an adult world. It is natural to assume you think you know what your kids are going through, but kids today are dealing with distractions, temptations and pressures that are unique to their generation. So, here are some ways to move your conversations forward.

  • Listen with an open mind. Teenagers, especially, have a deep need to be heard. As children get older they feel their ideas and opinions deserve consideration. Effective listening means listening without judgment or criticism. Granted, it’s not always easy but patience here pays off. You are the parent and success depends upon you staying calm and in control of your emotions. Embracing your child’s concerns and taking them seriously encourages them to see that your advice is based on true understanding.
  • Respond to the present moment. In other words, focus on what your child is saying now, not what they’ve said in the past, or what we believe, or what we think they should be saying. A good example of this:
    • Teenager: “You just don’t understand how hard it is to be the only person who doesn’t drink at a party.”
    • Parent: “I believe you. What makes it so difficult? How have you been dealing with that?”
  • Avoid communication stoppersincluding:
    • Accusations – “I know that you’re drinking.”
    • Interruptions – “I don’t want to hear your excuses.”
    • Prior Agenda – (Deciding what’s going to be discussed before your child has a chance to talk) – “I want to get to the bottom of your lies.”
    • Rushing – (as you drop your teen off at a party) “Remember, no drinking, ok?” An actual discussion about alcohol is far more effective than a last minute rule.
  • Have lots of little informal discussions instead of the “big talk.” Choose everyday situations like meal time, in the car doing errands, driving to and from school, or during any other activity you might be able to do together. It can be something as simple as taking a walk or doing some chores around the house together. Take advantage of the good times that are available. These are the times to talk.
  • Ask open-ended questions. When you talk about alcohol and related issues like driving under the influence, how you ask questions is important. Are you asking yes or no questions or are you asking the kind of open-ended questions that force your teen to think about his or her actions? Open-ended questions can help teens think through potential scenarios involving alcohol, as well as potential consequences.
Instead of… Try….
“Will there be drinking at the party?” “If there’s drinking at the party, what will you do?”
“Have you ever tried alcohol?” “What do you think about alcohol and kids who drink?”
“Do your friends drink?” “If your friends wanted to drink, how would you handle that?”
“Will his/her parents be home?” “Tell me about his/her parents.”
“Have any of your friends driven drunk?” “What are you and your friends looking forward to this year? How would mistakes with alcohol affect those plans?”
“I was your age once, I know what you’re going through.” “What’s it like to be a teenager these days?”
“You need to think for yourself.” “What’s the hardest thing you deal with when it comes to just being yourself around your friends?”

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Answering Tough Questions

As your child becomes more exposed to alcohol, and as trust builds around your relationship and your conversations, he or she may turn to you for answers and advice. This is a good thing but can also trigger some questions that can be difficult to answer. Don’t make up what you don’t know; offer to find out (maybe you can do it together). And, always be truthful. Since some questions can be difficult to answer, it is important to Stay Calm and Be Prepared.

Question: I got invited to a party … can I go?

How to Work Through the Question:

  • Discuss with your teen how they see this party taking shape.
  • Ask about where the party is, how long it is expected to last, what friends they expect to see there and what kinds of plans they have for transportation.
  • Ask about the kind of adult supervision for the party and how that will affect what happens at the party. If parents are involved and you don’t know them, ask about them; try to meet them.
  • Remind your child that even just being at a party where underage people are drinking can get them in trouble.
  • Discuss and work through their plan for that situation.
  • Use this time to establish or reinforce your rules about alcohol, and what behavior you expect.
Question: What if my friends ask me to drink?

How to Work Through the Question:

Helping your teen say “no” to peer pressure is one of the most important things you can do to keep him or her alcohol-free. Work with him or her to think of a way for them to handle this situation. Perhaps it is simply saying “no.” Or, perhaps you could role play some alternatives.

Question: Did you drink when you were a teenager?

How to Work Through the Question:

If you drank as a teenager, experts recommend that you give an honest answer. Explain why you were tempted to try alcohol and why underage drinking is dangerous. You could even give an example of an embarrassing or painful moment that occurred because of your drinking.

Question: Why do you drink?

How to Work Through the Question:

  • Explain your reasons for drinking – whether it’s to enhance a meal, share good times with friends, or celebrate a special occasion.
  • Point out that if you choose to drink, it’s always in moderation.
  • Talk about the fact that some people shouldn’t drink at all, including people who are underage.
Question: You drink alcohol, so why can’t I?

How to Work Through the Question:

  • Remind your teen that underage drinking is against the law – for good reason.
  • Point out that adults’ bodies are fully-grown, so they can handle drinking; but teenage bodies are still growing, so alcohol can have a greater impact on their judgment and health.
Question: Why is alcohol bad for me?

How to Work Through the Question:

Don’t try scare tactics or tell him or her, “You just can’t handle it.” As an alternative you can prepare and discuss facts surrounding the ideas that, “Alcohol can be bad for your growing brain. It interferes with your judgment, and can make you sick.” Once your kids hear the facts and your opinions about them, it’s easier for you to make rules and enforce them.

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Making Views and Rules Clear

When you talk about alcohol, make your views and rules clear. Take the time to also discuss your beliefs and opinions about alcohol. By the time kids reach their teens it can be helpful to give them more factual information that supports your views. Check out the Fact Zone portion of this website for information that can be helpful. Be honest and express a clear, consistent message that underage drinking is unacceptable; that you won’t tolerate underage drinking or drug use of any kind. Set clear rules and enforce the rules you set. It is helpful to end the conversation with these kinds of statements after everyone has had an opportunity to talk. Being real and honest will more likely lead to your teen respecting your rules.

Instead of… Try….
“You know the right thing to do.” “If you ever have a question about alcohol, you can count on me to listen and answer honestly.”
“You know what I expect.” “I expect that you won’t drink alcohol.”
“Never get in a car with a drunk driver.” “If you’re ever in a situation where you have to choose between getting in a car with a drunk driver and calling me, I want you to know you can call me and I’ll come get you with no questions asked.”

Recognize the importance of follow-up questions

Kids have a lot on their minds. Asking follow-up questions helps your message stick. Things like …. “Now tell me again what you’ll do if your ride home has been drinking?” Follow-up questions are important because they:

  • Help create accountability
  • Show you have a genuine concern for the end result
  • Create opportunities to extend your conversation
  • Offer another way to check in and stay connected

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Keeping the Conversations Going

Your conversation with your teen is not a five minute discussion and it’s not a one time “talk.” Success on a topic like this is about building an ongoing dialogue. There is no doubt this is a difficult task when you are busy juggling so many demands on your time. Yet, the better you communicate and the more often it happens, the more comfortable your teen will be opening up during these discussions.

Look for windows of opportunity for these conversations. Your influence will be strengthened and your teen will benefit most from honest, relevant conversations and those can’t be scheduled. Some opportunities are more predictable than others. Maybe …

  • There has just been a school assembly about underage drinking.
  • Prom is approaching or your son or daughter is invited to a “big” party.

Other opportunities arise when we don’t expect them, but if you are watching for them they become more apparent.

  • You may be driving home after a family dinner at which an aunt or uncle had too much to drink.
  • You hear news stories about alcohol-related accidents when you are at home or in the car.
  • You may be watching a TV show where teens get in trouble with alcohol.
  • Your teen’s music may be playing lyrics that make drugs and alcohol seem cool.

These are the moments you want to grasp to discuss how, in real life, these behaviors can lead to painful consequences. These are the moments for you to expand and build on those important life lines of communication that can keep a parent/ teen relationship alive. Speak Now!