Family, Kids & Relationships

How to talk to kids about alcohol — these talks can start earlier than you think

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It may seem inevitable to some parents that their teen will try alcohol at some point, and some families might even condone it. However, research shows that the more you can delay the onset of your teen or young adult drinking alcohol, the less likely they are to develop a drinking problem later in life.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), here are just some of the physical and mental health risks that are linked to underage drinking:

  • Negative impact on learning, memory, speech, and visual and spatial thinking, especially since the brain is still developing until age 25
  • Higher rates of depression and suicide
  • Academic problems, skipping classes, and dropping out of school
  • Other risky behaviors like drunk driving, violence, and unprotected sex
  • Developing unhealthy coping mechanisms, which can lead to addiction

Families should also be aware of additional dangers of alcohol use and binge drinking, like alcohol poisoning, higher risks of various types of cancer, and “drunkorexia” (when people eat less to feel more drunk).

Parents and caregivers who are prepared with the right information can have effective conversations with kids and teens that will eventually help them have a healthier relationship with alcohol. In fact, research shows that kids actually do care what their parents have to say about drinking, and that parents are the number one reason that kids decide not to drink.

Despite all of the alarming facts about underage drinking, parents who talk to kids about alcohol as a morally neutral topic will have the most success in getting through to kids and teens. Otherwise, psychotherapist and mom Louise Gleeson told CBC, “We risk having our children have the perception about themselves, that if they choose to engage or get curious about using substances, they are viewed by their own parents as being bad. And when that happens, in order to keep the attachment with their parent, they will keep it secret.”

The AAP recommends that you begin talking to kids about alcohol when they’re around 9 years old. But don’t feel like you have to cover everything in one big talk. The goal should be to have many small talks over the years. Here are some talking points and tips to help!

Find out what they think

“Have you noticed adults drinking alcohol? Do you think people act differently when they’re drinking a lot? How does it make you feel when you notice that?”

“Have you noticed kids your age or older drinking alcohol, or talking about drinking? How does that make you feel?”

“Do you know some of the reasons why alcohol is not safe for kids?”

Assure them that not everyone’s doing it

“Sometimes movies or social media can make it look like ‘everyone’ drinks during their teens or twenties. But there will always be plenty of people who don’t drink — they just tend not to talk about it as much, because, well, they aren’t doing it.

Research has shown that most teens actually stay away from alcohol during high school, and that drinking has become less and less common among teens.”

Be clear on the rules

“Our family rule is no drinking until you’re 21, because that’s the law and because I care about you — there are many important physical and mental health reasons for staying away from alcohol until you’re older.”

Share an example

If you have a personal story about a time in your life when you saw alcohol misuse hurt people (physically, mentally, socially, financially, etc.), you can share those stories honestly with kids and teens — to the extent that you think they’re ready to understand. Don’t condemn the person or people who had the problem with alcohol use, but you can tell them objectively what happened.

Model safe and healthy alcohol use

If you do choose to drink occasionally, be prepared for honest discussions with your kids about it. Think through your reasons for drinking, and make sure they don’t get the message that you drink to make yourself happy.

Tell them clearly why alcohol isn’t for kids or teens, and be sure that alcohol is locked up and inaccessible (just as prescription medications and cannabis products should be). Don’t allow underage drinking at all, even under supervision.

If you don’t drink, be honest about the reasons. This could include any health information or family history that might help them in the future.

Understand your family history

If someone in your family has experienced alcohol addiction or has a history of not being able to tolerate alcohol, let your teen know the facts. Genetics can play a big factor in whether a kid grows up to have an alcohol use disorder. Some genes can even cause lower alcohol tolerance and greater risk of serious health problems as a result.

Offer a nonjudgmental listening ear

“But I want to tell you that if you get into a situation where drinking is involved — you or someone else — you can tell me about it and I won’t be mad, I promise.

I was always afraid to tell my parents anything that I thought they wouldn’t like, and I don’t want it to be the same way for you.”

Come up with a family system

“Let’s come up with a system so that if you’re out with friends and you’re feeling uncomfortable or unsafe for any reason, you can text me, and I’ll say it’s time to come home and pick you up right away.

You could text me an X or some other symbol. What do you think our code should be?

You don’t even have to tell me the reason you wanted to leave — unless you or someone else is hurt or in danger. Deal?”

For more tips and talking points, be sure to check out these other related scripts for parents:

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.