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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship, and creating rules about alcohol helps establish the supportive conditions necessary for your teen to deal with risk.
Motor vehicle crashes, overdoses, and suicide account for six out of every 10 deaths of children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 25 in Montana.1 The misuse of alcohol is a contributing factor in these deaths. Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused substance among youth. Underage drinking contributes to problems at schools, violence, sexual assaults, and may lead to other drug use.2
The good news is that rates of alcohol use among high school students are going down across the U.S. and in Montana. Underage drinking remains a temptation for teens and if abused can have a major impact on their brain development.3 Teens and emerging young adults, ages 15-19, will be introduced to greater risk-taking opportunities whether that involves alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behaviors.
Most parents will face challenges in establishing rules about alcohol. “Why can’t I go to the (unsupervised) party?” you may hear from your teen. As teens are increasingly influenced by their peers, power struggles can occur when they are eager to do what friends are doing regardless of the risks involved. Your teen needs your involvement in establishing clear boundaries and providing monitoring and support 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 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 fifteen-year-old, arguing over attending a friend’s unsupervised party with your sixteen-year-old, or your nineteen-year-old coming home with alcohol on their breath, establishing clear rules about alcohol can help your family prepare for dealing with challenges cooperatively while building essential skills in your teen.
Today, in the short term, rules about alcohol can
- help to manage your own stress through your teen’s many changes;
- help your 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 teen to stay safe.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your teen
- builds their capacity to assert boundaries and establish healthy relationships that will serve them for a lifetime;
- strengthens self-control; and
- cultivates healthy habits that will contribute to their ongoing emotional and mental wellbeing.
This five-step process helps you and your teen establish rules about alcohol. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about establishing rules about alcohol by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your 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 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) about critical aspects of their day; and
- will grow problem-solving skills.
- Pick a time when you are enjoying spending time together. Driving in the car is ideal (when you don’t have a time pressure) since your 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 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 teen might have for trying out healthy risks whether it involves entering an art contest or climbing a rock wall. If you observe your 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 teen likes to see friends. Are there places to hang out socially that are desirable for your teen and their friends? Are they in supervised or public locations? Teens 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 teen may come back to you at a later moment to discuss.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Though your teen has likely been exposed to adults drinking throughout childhood, you may or may not have had a specific conversation about the role of alcohol. Though your 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 society agrees are the basics for civility and health. That does not mean that they provide the added values needed to make smart choices. For that, 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 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 teen’s growing body and brain differently than 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 the teenage years may be a particularly vulnerable time for brain development and the adverse effects of alcohol. Because 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 can get in the way of normal brain development.
- Youth who drink heavily have subtle, but significant challenges with memory, language, academic achievement, abstract reasoning, 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 doctors 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 teen’s hopes for their friendships and the impact of alcohol on healthy development, engage your teen in a discussion about setting up rules about alcohol. You could 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 every 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 provide that ride without asking questions or issuing consequences.
- Change the conversation when your young adult turns 21. If you have a 21-year-old, change the conversation to focus on choices about the healthy and safe use and non-use of alcohol. The quick facts above are still important. But, now consider, “How will our rules and guidelines change and what needs to remain the same?” For 21-year-olds living at home, leaving their location where they’ll be, having an exit plan with a friend, and communicating when they’ll come home all still apply. As you discuss facts, values, and social engagements, discuss how you (as an adult) ease out of social pressures when you don’t want to drink. Also, be sure to discuss moderation and review that it is not safe to drive after drinking.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your family and teen’s social life can offer regular opportunities for your teen to practice new skills and try out your family guidelines if you seize those chances. With practice, your 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 teen tries out the rules and plans you have created together.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a 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 teen experiences peer pressure, and they are in a high stakes setting. For example, if your guideline is that 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 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. Assure your teen you’ll pick up with no lectures if they are uncomfortable or there’s been drinking at a party.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen about alcohol and established rules, and you are allowing them to practice 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 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 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 teen shares struggles, explore how you can 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 feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2 about the rules on which your family agreed. Third, if you feel that your 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 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. Teens need to understand (and review, at times) the importance of rules and why they are reasonable.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your teen manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “I noticed you made the decision to leave the party when others showed up who had been drinking. That’s really taking responsibility!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you check in on time, I will let you stay at your friend’s house longer” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You checked in with me like we agreed. I appreciate that!”
- 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 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 teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps as ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five 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 teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for 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.