Preventing Teens From Abusing Alcohol

Preventing Teens From Abusing Alcohol

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

One in five teens have problems with alcohol

Mom and Dad receive a phone call that at the party their fifteen year old son Alex attended the night before, a group of kids were drinking alcohol. Alex was one of them. Mom and Dad are shocked. Their son is an A student who never gets into trouble. They never would have imagined that Alex would be one of “those bad kids.”

Teens get involved in drinking for many reasons

The causes vary from peer pressure, they are curious or bored, there is a family culture of using these substances, or they are rebelling against their parents. Sometimes kids who feel lonely or are unhappy about family problems such as a divorce or a death are desperate to dull their pain and turn to alcohol.

Studies show that one in five teens have problems caused by drinking. This includes getting drunk, being involved in car accidents, having problems with friends and family, and even getting into trouble with the police. Therefore parents should start to talk with their kids as soon as they show any curiosity about alcohol to prevent such problems. You can even tell your four year old when he asks for a sip of your wine at dinner: “Only grown-ups can drink.”

Rather than yell, become accusatory or threaten their child, the best approach for Alex’s parents to take, is to speak calmly and find out the details about what happened from their child’s perspective. Maybe Alex did not drink at all. Maybe he was offered a drink, but did not know there was alcohol in it? Perhaps his friends dared him to have some alcohol and he did not know how to say no. Once the parents have the details they will know what information and skills he needs to learn. The most important thing for parents to accomplish in a similar situation is to create an environment where the child can talk freely. This will help you to teach him how to handle himself in a safe, responsible way.

Here is a step by step approach that can help these parents resolve this situation:

Present him with the facts: “Mr. Miller called and said you were drinking at Williams’ party last night. Can you tell us what happened? We love you and want to help you.”

Listen to his perspective in a non-judgmental, non-accusatory way. Emphasize that if he tells you what really happened, you will be able to help him.

Identify what he needs to know: Ask him these questions: Why does he think kids drink? Did he drink that night and how much. How often is he drinking? What is he drinking?

Find out why he drank: You might ask if he was feeling peer pressure to go along with it. Was he feeling curious? Was anything upsetting him? There are many possibilities and in order to help him build better judgment you need to pinpoint the problem.

Communicate your expectations and rules: If he was involved in anyway, let him know that you understand that teens can be curious, but you do not allow him to drink. Explain that alcohol is illegal under the age of twenty one and can lead to serious problems if he is caught drinking any amount of alcohol.

Talk about the dangers: Explain that studies have shown that car accidents involving alcohol is a major cause of teen deaths. Alcohol impairs people’s judgment and the individual get into a car with a driver who has been drinking and end up in an accident. Experts have also found that young people who drink are more vulnerable to sexual assault and unprotected sex.This behavior puts teens at risk for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

Alcohol impairs memory, sensory and motor functioning: It can cause harm to the liver and other organs and lead to illnesses, addiction, and death. Alcohol can cause kids to fail in school, get kicked off a sports team (alcohol affects reaction time, coordination, and balance.) Teens who drink often undergo mood swings and bouts of aggression which can seriously harm their relationships. Alcohol harms the frontal cortex of the brain which is involved in planning and decision making. As a result, it diminishes the child’s ability to reason and make good choices.

Get professional help: Like adults, children can develop addictions to alcohol so they will need help as quickly as possible. If you discover that your child is drinking alcohol on a regular basis, it is wise to take him for professional help. Some resources you might consider are local hospitals, public or private mental health agencies, counselors at your child’s school, student health centers and programs such as Alateen, part of the Al-Anon program.

One of the best ways to prevent your child from drinking, besides educating him, is to build a strong trusting relationship with your child. A child who feels a loving bond with a parent, will feel valuable and have more of an ability to withstand peer pressure. Your child will care about meeting your expectations and will not want to hurt you. If he feels secure in your love, he will also feel he can come to you to get information and guidance and this will help him avoid getting into trouble.