Talking to Teens at Different Stages

Talking to Your Teen about Drinking

You wouldn’t throw a baseball to an 11-year-old at the same speed you’d throw one to a 19-year-old, right? Keep that in mind when you sit down to talk to a teen about alcohol.

Psychologists who deal specifically with adolescent development divide it into three stages: early (11-14), middle (15-17) and late (18-21). Each stage is defined not so much by age but rather by psychological milestones having to do with body image, cognition, independence, peer interactions and identity. One of the milestones involves how the adolescent thinks about and engages in risky behavior such as underage drinking.

If you talk to a teen about drinking, it’s crucial that you tailor your approach to his or her current developmental stage. Perhaps your 15-year-old son or daughter looks grown-up but is psychologically still very much a kid. Your young adult may have to deal with unsettling situations when he or she is mistaken for somebody much older. Recognize these situations; you don’t want to make the same mistake when you talk to your child about drinking.

Early Adolescence (11-14)

Early adolescents, ages 11 to 14 or so, are preoccupied with themselves. They’re experiencing puberty and, understandably, worried about their changing bodies. They often focus on their flaws, and they assume everybody else is scrutinizing them as closely as they do themselves. They may struggle with what psychologists call emancipation issues. One minute they’re slamming their doors and insisting on independence and privacy, while the next they’re running to their parents for comfort. Eager to be accepted at school, many dress and act like their friends for fear of looking different.

Fortunately, early adolescents are still at the stage when crazy, risk-taking behaviors such as underage drinking usually seem ridiculous and self-destructive. Unfortunately, they are also still what doctors call concrete thinkers. They often can’t conceive the future consequences of present actions.

It’s important, even during this early stage, to talk to them about alcohol—and to set a good example. At this age they are likely to be idealistic, questioning and critical of their environment. They’ll probably be quick to call you a hypocrite if what they hear you saying and what they see you doing doesn’t match.

Since teenagers in this group are eager to fit in, it’s an ideal time to talk about ways to resist peer pressure. Help them come up with realistic answers for friends who pressure them to drink. Reassure them that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable saying no. If they feel they absolutely can’t, offer alternatives: Suggest they hold a cup of soda instead. Tell them they can always call home for help and, of course, they should feel free to blame it on their parents.

Typical Early Teen Questions

“What’s so bad about alcohol? It’s legal isn’t it? You drink sometimes, right?”
Don’t be defensive. At this developmental stage, these questions are natural. Tell them: “Yes, it’s legal—for anyone over 21.” Explain that scientists have proven that teenage bodies and minds are still maturing, and that alcohol can adversely affect developing organs, especially the brain. Teenagers who drink often can’t handle the effects of alcohol. They’re more likely to lose their balance and have impaired coordination. They may have trouble thinking clearly and making good decisions—and make serious, terrible mistakes as a result.

“Why do people drink, then? They look sloppy when they do, and they smell like alcohol.”
Again, don’t be insulted. Children at this age think concretely, so jump in and explore the young adolescent’s concrete perceptions of drinkers—it will make more of an impression than talking about abstract consequences of underage drinking. Perhaps they’ve seen teenagers who were drunk and made fools of themselves, such as vomiting and smelling bad. Or talk openly with them about a recent incident in the news, perhaps an incident in which teenagers were driving drunk. These real stories about the dangers of underage drinking are more likely to stick in the minds of early teens.

Early Teen Icebreaker: A TV Show Depicting Teen Drinking

  • After you watch the program with your child, get him talking about it. Find out if he has established any beliefs regarding underage drinking. Young adolescents are likely to say they know underage drinking is wrong, dangerous and illegal. This is also a chance to encourage them and remind them that four out of five kids their age don’t drink.
  • Ask: “Do you think the kids on the TV show got into any trouble because of their drinking?” A question like that will help your child figure out that alcohol can lead to trouble. He or she is more likely to remember that link if he makes the connection on his or her own.
  • Ask: “Do you know any kids who drink like the kids on this television show?” Try to find out more about your child’s friends. Young teens are greatly affected by their peer group. Encourage friendships with kids who don’t drink underage or engage in other risky activities.
  • Ask: “Have you been to parties where kids were drinking, like the party on this TV show?” If the answer is no, praise him. Remind him again that most kids his age do not drink alcohol. If yes, you need to probe deeper.
  • If your child has resisted pressure to drink, praise her. Remind her that most teens her age would have done exactly the same thing. Make a plan for the future, stating that if she is again at a party where she is offered alcohol, she can call or text you, and you will pick her up without consequences. You can also agree to a code word or phrase with your teen to indicate she wants you to pick her up. Remind her how dangerous it is to ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking. You may even suggest that your child can hold on to a cup of soda or water at a party, so as not to feel so different.
  • If your child admits to trying alcohol, or actually getting drunk at a party, don’t reprimand. In a nonthreatening manner, try to find out more. Let your child know that you appreciate his honesty, then discuss what happened and how you feel about it. Make a plan to help him avoid drinking again, including tactics on how to say ‘no’ or how to contact you during uncomfortable situations. If your early-adolescent child admits to frequent episodes of drinking or binge drinking, he probably needs a more formal evaluation. The best way to start is by arranging an appointment with your child’s health care provider.

Early Teen Icebreaker: Graduation News

  • Prom and graduation may feel very far away from the lives of your 11-to-14 year old. But news stories about underage drinking during prom season provide excellent opportunities for underage drinking discussions.
  • Ask: What do you think of that story? Do you think unsafe things can happen at the prom? How would you feel if all your friends were drinking? Do you think you could enjoy a prom or graduation party if alcohol was not available?
  • If your early teen has older siblings, talk with him about your interaction with them in regards to drinking around graduation to give him clues as to what to expect in the future.

Middle Adolescence (15-17)

Teenagers during the middle adolescent years have emerged from puberty. Psychologically, though, they’re in turmoil. Though they’re still self-conscious about their bodies, they struggle intensely with peer relationships and independence from their parents. While these teens are beginning to think abstractly—to understand there are long-term consequences for present actions—their abilities are limited. They can imagine bad things happening to their friends, but they can’t quite see bad things happening to them. These “it can’t happen to me” years include plenty of risk-taking and experimentation—and that’s likely to involve drugs, tobacco, sex and drinking.

During these years, rebelling against parental figures is routine. Teens readily give the impression that they don’t respect their parents’ opinions. But—surprise—psychologists have discovered that they actually do. And it’s crucial for parents and guardians to keep that in mind when they discuss alcohol with them.

You’ll probably find that conversations will take place on the teen’s terms—at whatever moment they will give you their attention. It would be wise to create opportunities for these talks. Perhaps a long drive, when the teen doesn’t have to look at you directly, or during dinnertime, or right before the teenager goes to bed. Ideally, they’ll take place when you’re both in a good mood.

If teens share less during these years, don’t fret. It’s a healthy step toward independence. Step back, be available for conversations, and tune in to hints that the teen is willing to discuss drinking. Mutual respect is key. Don’t talk down. Don’t patronize.

This is also the time to offer the facts in more detail—thanks to their developing mental skills, middle adolescents are usually mature enough to digest them. Talk about the physiological effects of alcohol on the organs, especially the brain. Talk about the damage that alcohol misuse can cause to their organs, their brains, their lives and the lives of their friends.

At this age, kids will find themselves in social situations where they need to rely on their own judgment. Your role is to give them the tools to make smart decisions. Some middle teens may be invited to the prom as guests of older teens. If yours has been, have a conversation with her (or him). Middle teens invited to prom by an older date tend to be starry-eyed and easily influenced by the older teen’s behaviors. The peer pressure is enormous. So are the dangers, particularly if the teen’s date has been drinking alcohol and then initiates unwanted sexual conduct.

Get the conversation started with questions in a neutral atmosphere: What can you tell me about your prom date? Where exactly will you be before, after and during the prom? What will you do if your date decides to drink? Will you be uncomfortable saying no?

Make sure your child has a way to reach you if he or she is concerned or wants to come home early. Practice some sample conversations that your child can use to decline alcohol. Role-playing is helpful. And, of course, communicate with other parents involved.

Typical Middle-Teen Comment

“There’s nothing wrong with drinking. Everyone does it!”
Behind the bravado, the teenager is fishing for a response—a rebuttal that she herself can use in the future. At this age teens are sorting out their beliefs. So help out.

Start with a few questions: What does she mean by “everybody?” How do her friends handle their alcohol? Has she seen anyone get into trouble after drinking? What happens to people who don’t drink? Are they mocked or ostracized—or are they respected? Does she respect kids who stick up for what they believe in?

Middle-Teen Icebreaker: Preparing for a Dance or Party

  • Find out more about the group of friends your child will be with before, during and after the event. Ask whether an adult will be present to supervise. If you do not know your child’s friends, you may ask your child to invite them over before the event so that you can meet them.
  • Teens at this age are highly affected by the behaviors of their peers. Discuss whether your child thinks there will be alcohol at the party. Remind them of your expectations about avoiding alcohol. If your child feels leaving a party that involves drinking will make him look ruinously uncool, suggest he hold a cup with soda or water.
  • You may also want to contact the parents of your child’s friends. In one recent survey of teens conducted by the American Medical Association, one in four teens reported attending parties where teens were drinking in front of parents and two in five teens reported obtaining alcohol from their friends’ parents.
  • Find out if anyone will be driving and discuss how dangerous drinking and driving is. You can also offer to pick up your child from any party or event where he feels uncomfortable, and remind him never to ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
  • Be consistent in your message. Remind your child and his friends that they can have a great time without drinking.

Middle-Teen Icebreaker: Preparing to Get a Driver’s License

  • Ask: “Do you think you are ready to get your driver’s license?”
  • Discuss the dangers of drinking and driving. Remind him that alcohol is implicated in 40 percent of adolescent motor vehicle fatalities.
  • Most states have a zero-tolerance rule, seizing the license of any driver under 21 with any alcohol whatsoever in his or her bloodstream. If your state doesn’t have such a rule, establish one in your household.

Middle-Teen Icebreaker: News About Drunken Teens

  • Drunkenness is often discussed in the news media. Whether it’s a report of a local alcohol-related car accident or of a celebrity’s bad behavior, these stories are a chance to discuss the negative sides of drinking.
  • Ask: “What do you think about the story on the news?” 
  • Although it may seem that some celebrities often “get away with” outrageous and even illegal behavior associated with alcohol and drug use, there are many famous cases where celebrities have died from addictions to drugs or alcohol.
  • Discuss with your child how being drunk in public can be socially damaging and can lead to legal troubles.
  • Ask: “Have you ever drunk any alcohol? Have you ever been drunk? What’s the most you drank at any one time? Do you think alcohol use can be dangerous? How?”
  • Ask: “How do your friends act when they drink? Has any of your friends ever lost control and done something he or she regretted later? Has anyone ever gotten into a fight, or been involved in a car accident, or taken risks after drinking? What do you think about it? If one of your friends was drinking and then got into trouble, how would you help?”
  • Ask: “What if you got on the school bus in the morning and noticed that the bus driver smelled like alcohol? Is that different from what you do if you needed to get home from a party, but the driver who was supposed to bring you home had been drinking?”

Late Adolescence (18-21)

The late-adolescent period starts around 18 and usually wraps up by age 21, though psychologists confirm what some parents have insisted for years: psychologically, some people remain adolescents well into their 20s. Physically, late adolescents are adults. They can think abstractly and reason logically. They have better memory and decision-making skills. Some of the risky behaviors of middle adolescence have declined. Many late teens are serious, goal-oriented and ready for college or work. They’ve begun to reintegrate certain family and peer values into a personal code of behavior. They’ve settled on an identity and made peace with who they are and where they are headed. And yet, until they’re 21, they’re still too young to drink, and they still need your help to understand the dangers that alcohol can bring into their lives.

They probably won’t ask. But psychologists say that late adolescents nonetheless want information from their parents. They may believe that they know more than you, and in some respects, they might. So you’ll need to ask questions, then gently guide them as they struggle with the answers.

For graduating high schoolers entering prom and graduation season, the conversation will most likely need to be initiated by you. This is a time of high danger in children’s lives and it’s OK to tell your child you are worried about his safety. It’s essential that you make it clear that underage drinking is unacceptable. Yes, it may prompt eye rolling—but usually, even if he isn’t showing it, your child is listening.

For older adolescents who stay closer to home after high school, the issues may be even more complicated. The risks of underage drinking are the same, and although you may be present in their lives, they may be reluctant to listen. They may resent parents or other adults for trying to tell them how to behave. To succeed in these conversations, you need to ask for their opinions. Lecturing won’t work. Instead, help them figure out their own ways to avoid illegal and unsafe behavior.

The risk of leaving them to their own devices on this is too great. Most are driving, so the frequency of alcohol-related car accidents increases. The alcohol-involved fatality rate is twice as high among adolescents as among adult drivers. This may have to do with teens’ low tolerance, their relative inexperience with driving, or both. This is why the legal drinking age was lifted to 21 from 18 across the U.S. in the 1980s, and why most states today have zero-tolerance laws for adolescent drinking and driving. Share those facts with older children.

Late-Teen Icebreaker: Prom and Graduation

  • Ask: “Where exactly are you going at prom—before, during and afterward? Will there be alcohol at any of these places?”
  • Older teens will often say that they are not sure where they will go after the prom—that it depends on what their friends are doing. This has the potential to lead to high-risk situations, whether or not is alcohol available. So agree on a plan to make sure they call before each after-prom stop so that you can assess the safety of the situation and your child’s own status.
  • Being the “cool” parent doesn’t work. Parents should not rent hotel rooms or offer unsupervised locations for pre- and post-prom parties where alcohol is likely to be available. Parents who support parties with underage drinking can be held liable if any adverse event occurs. Parents should discuss with their child how dangerous hotel-room parties can be in terms of personal safety and legal trouble.

Late-Adolescent Icebreaker: Getting the First Job

  • Ask: “What are your plans for the coming year?” It is difficult to impose strict rules on the life of an older teen who is working and financially supporting herself. But you can still influence the choices she makes about alcohol.
  • Encourage an older teen to be goal-oriented. Provide motivation for her to save, find meaningful employment and keep busy with safe and healthy activities. Older teens may understand more keenly how problem drinking can impact their relationships with family members and friends.
  • Older teens have often developed a sense of self and are less influenced by their peers. This is an age when teens may model their behavior more on that of their parents.
  • Promote their healthy behaviors by drinking responsibly or even abstaining from alcohol yourself.

Late-Adolescent Icebreaker: Leaving for College

  • Ask: “Are you excited to be going off to college?” 
  • For teenagers away at college particularly, drinking is a fact of life. There are plenty of students around who are 21 or older. Younger undergraduates will find themselves with easy access to alcohol. Away from home for the first time, many experiment and engage in behavior that was off-limits in high school.
  • Heavy drinking is common. Students tend to drink in order to get drunk. The harmful consequences—unplanned and unprotected sexual activity, assaults and car accidents—may be more common, since parents and authority figures are less present.
  • Most teenagers are quite excited but also a bit scared about starting college. This can be especially stressful for teens who are moving far away from home. Just as you may have a plan for dealing with college housing issues or financial problems, you will want to establish a plan for dealing with campus alcohol issues. You can’t be on campus with your child, but it is important to speak frankly and realistically about alcohol use with him.
  • The conversation should probably include discussion of strategies for safety. Help your child learn to access student health services and the channels for reporting safety issues within the college system. Get him to talk about how he would deal with potentially dangerous situations.
  • Ask: “What do you think goes on around campus on Friday nights?”
  • While most teens are aware of the high rates of drinking among college students, for some it may be a surprise. College students are subject to significant pressures to drink. Talk with your teen about the fact that she will likely be offered alcohol at parties and social events. Help her plan for how she will respond to these offers. Point out that some clubs, sororities or fraternities may encourage drinking, and help strategize about ways to combat the pressure to drink.
  • As binge drinking is especially problematic in college settings, talk about the physical and psychological dangers of heavy drinking. You may suggest that your child avoid drinking games and social events where drinking is the focal activity. Young women heading off to college may need some guidance in how to safely handle unwanted sexual advances, especially in situations involving alcohol. And young men should also be offered guidance in how to make or not make sexual advances, and handle unrequited ones, in situations involving alcohol.

Late-Adolescent Icebreaker: Preparing for Spring Break

  • Spring break can be an especially risky time for teens. Movies and television shows glamorize this as a week of nonstop partying.
  • Teens may have a harder time resisting peer pressure when they are far from home, in unfamiliar settings. They can’t call you to be picked up, and it is more difficult to get away from this pressure.
  • Ask: “What are your plans for spring break?” Ask about supervision and establish ways that you can reach each other quickly in case of emergencies. If they are leaving the United States, find out about the drinking laws in the countries they will be visiting, and discuss how to access help if problems arise. (You may want to give your child the number of the closest American embassy or consulate.)
  • Remind your child about the problems that he could run into if involved in heavy drinking (e.g., accidents, unwanted sexual activity, legal difficulties, etc.). Encourage your child to find activities that are fun and don’t involve alcohol.

Last Word: Guidelines for Discussing Drinking with Children at Every Age

  • Start early. Do it often.
  • Don’t be put off if your child seems dismissive. Kids at every age absorb more than you realize.
  • Don’t be a heavy drinker. Adolescents are hypersensitive to hypocrisy. And they do model their behavior after that of their parents.
  • Don’t lecture or judge. If your child opens up to you, then receives an immediate reprimand, it only teaches him or her to avoid telling you the truth.
  • Have the talk when you’re both in a good mood—after a fun activity together. The more time you spend together, the more opportunity you will have to start the discussion.
  • Don’t expect that your child will work it out on his or her own. Many studies demonstrate increased parental involvement is associated with reduced teen drinking.