With one in three kids trying alcohol before age 8 (and no, that’s not a typo), talking to your kids about underage drinking is definitely a conversation that can’t wait until the teen years. In fact, kids are more receptive to listening to your input between ages 8 and 11, so the earlier you have that conversation, the better.
You don’t have to sit your kids down and have “the big talk” all at once. In fact, talking to them about abstaining from drinking shouldn’t be a “one and done” lecture at all. It should be an ongoing dialogue between you and your child rather than a one-sided, intimidating monologue. Not sure where to start? Don’t worry, I’ve been there and have a few tips to help you learn how to talk to your kids about underage drinking!
How to Talk to Kids About Underage Drinking
I had a conversation with a therapist about this years ago, when my son was still a preschooler. I wanted to know, in her opinion, when I should bring up the topic of alcohol, especially since alcoholism runs in my family. Her advice kind of surprised me. She suggested that I start the conversation before his 10th birthday, but continue it throughout his pre-teen and teen years. Here are a few tips that I learned on how to get that conversation started.
1. Start the conversation in a casual environment
If you want your kids to listen to you, do not sit them down on the couch and say, “let’s have a talk.” Think back to your own childhood and remember how your eyes glazed over when your parents did the “serious talk” routine. Choose a moment when you’re both relaxed, in a good mood, and not focused on other things.
2. Find out what they already know, then fill in the blanks.
Before I start any important conversation with my son, I like to find out what he already knows. Sometimes he really surprises me. Our kids know more at younger ages than we did when we were children. You can start with something super simple like “what do you know about alcohol?” Then just let them talk. Don’t interrupt or correct any misconceptions until they’ve had a chance to finish. Once you know where they stand, it’s time to fill in the blanks with the facts.
3. Consider their age and personality
Obviously, your child’s age is going to play a major role in how you direct the conversation. Telling an 8-year-old that he’ll lose his driver’s license if he’s caught drinking underage isn’t going to make much of an impact. The consequences need to be real now, not later. If your child plays sports, you could let him know that drinking underage could get him thrown off his team.
Along with age, personality plays a huge role in the direction of your conversation. While many kids may tune out medical facts, my son actually likes to hear them. If your child is like mine, you could let him know that underage drinking damages both the brain and the nerves that carry signals throughout the body. Even if your kids aren’t into the medical facts, let them know in layman’s terms that alcohol can mess with their mental and physical development.
4. Set firm rules and expectations
It’s important to make sure your kids know exactly where you stand on the topic of underage drinking. Throughout the rest of the conversation, you’ve kept things relatively open to discussion, but here is where you put on your serious face. Let your child know that drinking alcohol underage is never okay. Period. It’s not only against your state’s law, but against your law as well.
5. Help them come up with ways out of a bad situation
You want your child to be able to come to you if they’re ever in a situation where they’re encouraged to drink. For example, if they’re at a party where alcohol is present, they can text you a code word and you can call their phone. They can turn to their friends and say something like, “UGH, my mom just called! She wants me home right now to help clean the garage!”
Kids want their friends’ approval. Let them “blame” you and save face with their friends while still staying safe. Once you get them out of the situation, you can figure out what to do next (like call the parents of the kid throwing the party and reevaluate your kids’ friends).
Like I said earlier, talking to your kids about underage drinking isn’t a “one and done” thing. Look for opportunities to reiterate the risks and consequences. Be their role model and abstain from drinking yourself, at least in their presence.
One more thing: if you do keep alcohol in your home, lock it up! A whopping 7 out of 10 parents do not keep their alcohol secure. If possible, talk to the parents of your kids’ friends and make sure they’ve secured their own alcohol, too.
If you need more help learning how to talk to your kids about underage drinking, please visit KnowWhenKnowHow.org.
I was selected for this opportunity as a member of CLEVER and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.