Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child and parent-teen relationship, and creating rules about alcohol helps establish the supportive conditions for your child/teen to deal with risk.
In Montana, rates of alcohol use among high school students are slightly higher than the national average.1 Underage drinking remains a temptation for our children/teens and if misused, can have a major impact on their brain development.2 Children/teens ages 11-14 will be introduced to greater risk-taking opportunities whether that involves alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behaviors. Yet, we all face challenges in establishing rules about alcohol. “Why can’t I go to the (unsupervised) party?” you may hear from your child/teen. As children/teens are increasingly influenced by their peers, power struggles can occur when they are eager to do what friends do regardless of the risks involved. Our children/teens require our involvement in establishing clear boundaries and providing monitoring and support in order to navigate peer pressure successfully.
The key to many parenting challenges, like establishing rules about alcohol, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s/teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Why Rules About Alcohol?
Whether it’s discovering the liquor cabinet has been opened by your curious eleven-year-old or arguing over attending a friend’s unsupervised party with your fourteen-year-old, establishing rules about alcohol can help your family prepare for dealing with challenges cooperatively while building vital skills in your child/teen.
Today, in the short term, rules about alcohol can:
- help to manage your own stress through your child’s/teen’s many changes;
- help your child/teen better manage the stress that comes with this age;
- cultivate a more trusting relationship; and
- help you feel confident that you’ve prepared your child/teen to stay safe.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:
- builds their capacity to assert boundaries and establish healthy relationships that will serve them for a lifetime;
- strengthens self-control;
- cultivates healthy habits that will contribute to their ongoing emotional and mental wellbeing; and
- promotes emotional wellbeing for the whole family.
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen establish rules about alcohol. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about establishing rules about alcohol by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s/teen’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to friends and peer pressure so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership also comes a greater responsibility for following the rules established);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- will be working in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions); and
- will grow problem-solving skills.
- Ask questions and listen carefully to your child’s/teen’s responses. Pick a time when you and your child/teen are enjoying time together. Driving in the car is an ideal time (when you don’t have a time pressure) since your child/teen will feel less “on the spot” when you are not looking directly at them. You might ask…
- “What are your hopes for your friendships?” Find out what your child/teen is longing for in their friendships. You may learn a lot about what motivates them. Then, when you discuss their friends, you know exactly what their aspirations are for their friendships, and you can help them work toward those healthy goals.
- “What are you and your friends most interested in trying that’s new and different?” Listen for interests and ideas your child/teen might have for trying out healthy risks whether it involves entering an art contest or climbing a rock wall. If you observe your child/teen taking a new interest, create opportunities to experience those risks in safe ways.
- “Where do you like to hang out with your friends?” Listen to where your child/teen likes to see friends. Are there places to hang out socially that are desirable for your child/teen and their friends? Are they in supervised or public locations? Teens, especially, need spaces and places where they can be social, and if they don’t have them, they’ll create them. Offer opportunities for healthy hangouts.
- “Does alcohol show up at parties with friends, and how do you feel about it?” Because it’s a sensitive issue, just ask but don’t pressure for an answer. Your child/teen may come back to you at a later moment to discuss.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Though your child/teen has likely been exposed throughout their childhood to adults drinking, you may or may not have had a specific conversation about the role of alcohol. Though your child/teen may be well aware that underage drinking is illegal, the “whys” of that law are equally important now for them to understand as they formulate their own sense of values.
- Knowing what the laws are can help provide a starting point for discussion. Laws are rules we as a society agree are the basics for civility and health. That does not mean that they provide the added values needed to make smart choices. For that, our families need to discuss the facts and also what they believe to be right for their family. The law in Montana states that:
- Those under 21 years of age may drink alcohol provided by the minor’s parent or guardian in non-intoxicating amounts in a private location.
- Those under 21 years of age may NOT drink alcohol in a restaurant, bar, or public location where alcohol is served.
- Intoxication is measured at no more than 0.05 blood alcohol level, or the point at which there is physical or mental impairment. That level can be achieved with between one or two standard drinks in one hour.
- Those under 21 years of age may not purchase alcohol.
- There are severe penalties for drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs. For those under 21, a “Driving Under the Influence or DUI” is established for a 0.02 blood alcohol level.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Learn together. Alcohol impacts a child’s/teen’s growing body and brain differently from adults. Talk about the following information:
- Less than a half of a glass of alcohol in one hour is enough to change your personality and your judgement. That small amount will suppress the functions of the frontal lobe of the brain controlling inhibitions, self-control, judgment, and concentration.
- Researchers are finding that childhood and the teenage years are a particularly vulnerable time for brain development and the adverse effects of alcohol. Because children/teens are undergoing a major brain reconstruction from learning from play to the more logical thinking required of the adult years, these changes paired with alcohol use can get in the way of normal brain development.
- Young heavy drinkers have subtle but significant challenges with memory, language, academic achievement, abstract reasoning and empathy, future planning, and creative problem solving.
- Discuss values for family health and healthy development. Consider discussing the following questions:
- “What do we do to keep healthy (diet, exercise, preventative doctor visits)?”
- “How do food and drinks fit into keeping your body healthy?”
- “Do you take medication? For what and why?”
- “What are the many substances that alter your body and brain?”
- “How do those altering substances fit into a healthy lifestyle?”
- Considering your child’s/teen’s hopes for their friendships and the impact of alcohol on healthy development, engage in a discussion about setting up rules about alcohol. You might ask: “What might be some helpful rules we can stick to as a family?” Examples might include:
- Family members will share an address or specific location where each person will be each time they go out for the evening.
- Go to all evening functions with a buddy for safety.
- Always have an escape/excuse plan (with your buddy and with your parents) ready if alcohol or other substances are present.
- If called or texted for a ride, parents will appreciate the chance to offer a safe ride and will provide that ride without asking questions or issuing consequences.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Your family and child’s/teen’s social life can offer regular opportunities for your child/teen to practice new skills and try out your family rules if you seize those chances. With practice, your child/teen will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child/teen tries out the rules and associated plans.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s/teen’s sense that they can do a task successfully, which includes standing up to peer pressure. This leads to confidence.
- Try out the new rules before your child/teen experiences peer pressure and they are in a high stakes setting. For example, if your guideline is: “Family members will leave an address or specific location where they will be each time they go out for the evening,” then create a system where you’ll always leave this information.
- Identify with your child/teen their closest friend and discuss the role of a safety buddy. Over pizza, chat about what kind of plan they could establish if they want to leave a party or an uncomfortable situation.
- Initiate the no-risk pick up. Drive friends to hang out at the mall or movies.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen about alcohol and established rules, and you are allowing them to practice it so they can learn how these play out in social situations. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, following through with logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to check in: “How are the rules we’ve established? Are they reasonable to you? Are you struggling at all? Are the plans we set up, like your safety buddy, working out so far?”
- Monitor their activities. Before they go out, be sure you know where they are going, who they’ll be with, and how they are getting there. Verify when they’ll be home. Offer the ride home. And when they get home, be there to greet, hug, and discreetly check their breath.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I notice how you called me when you were uncomfortable. That’s taking responsibility!”
- Stay engaged. Be ready to talk when your child/teen is eager. It can feel like their willingness to talk comes at the most inopportune moments. Remember that these are precious windows of opportunity for you to learn about what’s going on in their lives and offer support.
- Engage in further practice. If your child/teen shares struggles, explore how can you create additional plans to help them feel supported.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 about the rules your family agreed upon. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Don’t create a situation where your rules are so tight, strict, and inflexible that you invite your child’s/teen’s rebellion. Show that you value their opinions and are reasonable. Learn together about the risks so that you are revisiting rules as a team. Children/teens need to understand (and review) the importance of rules and why they are reasonable.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, your attention is still your child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished like getting to work and school on time in the morning. But, if your child/teen is working hard to stick to the family rules — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to their motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children/teens are enlisting a safety buddy and coming home on time, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I notice you designated a safety buddy and got home on time. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on teens. When you remove the extra screen time or money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You called when you needed a ride – that’s so smart!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “You made your curfew” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say – “You let us know where you were going, who you were going to be with, and when you were coming home.”
Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Connect with other Montana parents about underage drinking and drugs at LetsFaceItMt.com.