A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Father talking to son

Tips for Talking to Kids About Alcohol

Many of us have given our young teen a sip of our wine or other drink – with the best intentions! We assumed allowing tastes of alcohol at home would demystify the experience of drinking. We thought tasting it with us present would make alcohol less of a forbidden fruit, and our kids would be less likely to drink with friends.

Turns out we were probably wrong. There appears to be no reduction in binge drinking or other harmful drinking behaviors in teens who tried alcohol at home. A recent study showed that allowing our underaged children to even sip or taste alcohol increases alcohol-related problems later in their teen years. And letting kids have whole drinks, even if only at holidays or family celebrations, may be associated withan increase in these risky behaviors.

These studies reminded me of a story from several years ago. We were sitting around the dinner table with another family and our 2 boys who were about 6 then. Somehow the topic of alcohol came up and my son asked why grown-ups can drink but kids can’t?

Society’s messages about drinking can be confusing for kids. We tell them they can’t drink until they’re 21, but TV shows, movies, and video games make it seem like everyone drinks – even teens! Some parents think alcohol use in teens is unavoidable and not so concerning. But excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year and accounted for $24 billion in economic costs in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s important to start a conversation with your kids about alcohol early. That night we explained to the kids one reason they’re not allowed to drink is because their young bodies don’t metabolize alcohol the same way as adults’ do, so it’s more dangerous for them.

What do we know, what can we do?

Despite the mixed messages about alcohol, we have a good understanding of how to prevent teens from drinking.

Stay involved and encourage discussion. Teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like drinking if their parents pay close attention to their social lives. Set clear rules and expectations, but also have and encourage discussions.

Take action to help your teen deal with life’s stressors. Some teens use alcohol to decrease stress. If your teen seems stressed or depressed, or is facing challenging life events (divorce, death, financial struggles), seek advice or counseling services early.

Be a good role model. Use alcohol wisely: drink moderately (1 to 2 drinks a day) or not at all, never drink and drive, and choose a designated driver.

Start the conversation early. Preteens are still very open to learning from their parents. Start talking about the risks of alcohol use with preteens and continue with teens.

Here are some discussion points for you to use.

Ask why they think teens start drinking in the first place. The answers will likely include wanting to:

  • Fit in with peers who are drinking.
  • Not look like a loser or not seem afraid.
  • Act older or more mature.
  • Escape difficult emotions, relieve stress, or deal with anger.
  • Be different by rebelling against expectations and limits.

Ask what your child thinks of these reasons and how they can avoid the same pitfalls. You can suggest they:

  • Decide what to do ahead of time and stick to it.
  • Hang out with friends who are making healthy choices and help them be a better person.
  • Ask themselves if alcohol use fits their self-image and plans for their future.

Discuss the influence of media and advertising on them. Explain that TV, movies, and video games can make it look like everyone drinks, but many people don’t and most wait till they’re 21! Also explain that alcohol companies spend billions of advertising dollars to get teens to start drinking. Many teens hear about this big-company control and choose to think for themselves by saying “No!”

Role play how they can respond when feeling pressured. Some ideas include:

  • Blame it on something else. Your kid can say, “My parents would kill me,” or “I’m too tired.”
  • Suggest another thing to do.
  • Leave an uncomfortable situation – point out this can be done quietly by saying they’re going to the bathroom and then actually walking away.
  • Simply say “No!”

To help your teen resist the temptation of underage drinking, start a conversation around the dinner table tonight. Express your expectations and be clear about the consequences of not following your guidelines.

Alcohol prevention for your child starts with you and this conversation!

Find more resources for parents:
My Doctor Online:
Drinking and Getting High: You Decide
Your Teen’s Emotional Health

Other resources:
 TeensHealth: Alcohol

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