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New Advice on Talking About Teen Drinking

New Advice on Talking About Teen Drinking

As a child turns into a teen, many parents find worries increase. And one of the issues that can cause stress is the problem of underage drinking. A new study offers insight, while noted local experts offer advice. 

The Health Alliance on Alchohol (a national public initiative developed in partnership between Heineken USA, NY Presbyterian Healthcare System, and White Plains Hospital) just released the results of a study on teen drinking.

The study was conducted by Dr. Julia Potter and Dr. Karen Soren of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

RELATED: Read more on teen substance abuse.

The two looked at 310 sets of young adults (ages 21-23) and one of their parents. Each answered questions retrospectively on the young adult's teen years. The nationally-representative sample reflected a 50-50 mix of genders as well as diversity in ethnicity and family situation (divorced/single vs. married). Of the parents participating, 42% were fathers, a high number compared to previous studies that looked primarily at mothers. Another reason the study adds to the existing literature is that it explored parent-child communication.

Two surprising findings

1) Both parental approval of underage drinking and discomfort talking about the subject increased the odds of problem drinking.

2) Taking a stand for alcohol abstinence decreased the likelihood of the young adult getting drunk before age of 21. But the majority of parents didn't take that position, instead only trying to protect their children from the worst consequences of drinking. Many parents believed their kids were probably going to do it regardless, so the best way to spend their energy was to educate them about the dangers of drunk driving.

Dr. Potter and Dr. Soren, both of whom have extensive experience working with teens and families apart from this latest research, have suggestions on how to help your kids avoid underage drinking.

Send a clear message.

The best approach is to state, "I don't want you to drink before the age of 21. I'd be really disappointed in you if you did. Here's why..."

That doesn't mean you can't offer an "emergency plan." In fact, both experts recommended one (like reassuring your child that if he's ever in a bad situation where he's stuck for a ride, he can always call you, no matter the time or circumstances.) Many parents worry that's being contradictory, but in fact, kids don't see it that way. They are quite able to process and separate the two messages.

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Start young.

The longer the message has to take the root the better. The younger the child, the easier they accept black and white ideas. In other words, get to them while they still think everything you say is gospel.

Make it an ongoing discussion.

A one-off talk won't do much good. Your child's brain and peer group changes, so your message should too. Appeal to your child's stage and personality.

Younger kids are often impressed by "the law's the law." Tweens may remember getting drunk can make them look ugly or do embarrassing things in front of friends. A young teen who's into sports may pay attention if you tell her that drinking could keep her from making the team. You may want to tell an older teen that having a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend is that much harder if drinking is involved. However you decide to approach it, keep it "of the moment." Kids, even seniors in high school, have brains that are less able than ours to appreciate long-term consequences.

Don't bother with scare tactics.

They rarely work, so don't force him to sit through a gory YouTube video or share the story of your co-worker's nephew who drove the wrong way down the parkway and is so is paralyzed at age 18. The reason? Our instinct is to disconnect from really extreme scenarios, to think, "Oh, that's not me! That's just crazy. Who would be that stupid?" Keep the conversation tied to those right here, right now, relatable examples.

Get comfortable.

The best way to feel at ease is to get the fact straight. If you don't know what you're talking about, you'll feel more uneasy. On top of that, if you, for example, say blacking out when you mean passing out, or insist "None of your friends drink!" when you can't possibly know that for sure, your kid will discount your message.

Another trick to make it an easier conversation is to avoid eye contact by chatting while walking the dog or driving your kid to practice.

Some parents note that teens seem to open up late at night, when younger siblings are asleep.

Be consistent. 

As with so many other situations involving your kids, consistency between both parents is key. If one parent is much more confident and comfortable addressing the issue, it's better to have that person do it alone than for the child to get mixed signals.