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Now Is the Right Time!
Now is the right time to become more fully informed about the challenges that may face your 17-year-old teen about alcohol and how you can position them for success.
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, as their bodies and brains prepare for their adult lives to come, require risk taking in order to exercise their responsible decision-making abilities. And, this is the age in which they will be introduced to greater risk-taking opportunities whether involving alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behaviors.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 also gain a deeper social awareness so that they begin to see from the perspective of their peers. This newfound empathy can create social anxiety as your teen may make incorrect assumptions about peers’ impressions of them adding to a heightened sensitivity. They may feel like they are “on stage” being judged by classmates regularly. Their need to belong becomes even greater as they assert their independence. These challenges arise as a normal part of your teen’s development.
Yet, during these years, the uncertainty and awkwardness of puberty is ending, and with that comes a newfound confidence. They desire adult leadership roles and look to mentors or more competent adults for approval as they make choices in order to grow their independent decision-making skills. These developmental themes can support parents’ efforts as they prepare their teens for making healthy choices.
Teens who feel a sense of love and connection with family and friends, are armed with the facts, and prepared with an escape plan with supportive families who will get them out of harm’s way – no questions asked – are far more likely to be able to resist peer pressure and navigate the challenges of the teen years successfully. The steps below will prepare you to help grow your teen’s skills to be prepared to make healthy choices about alcohol use.
Why Mixed Messages About Alcohol?
Teens receive numerous mixed messages about alcohol consumption and its place in their lives and in their communities. They may see commercials or alcohol products placed in a glamorous context in television shows. They may encounter drunk adults at weddings, festivals, or concerts. Perhaps, teens in these encounters view those others as having fun, or perhaps, they view them as scary and out-of-control. These outside messages, though they have an impact, are not as critical as the messages that you and your immediate family and friends send to your teens through your actions about alcohol. And, it’s never too late to become more fully aware of the messages your teen is receiving, their impacts, and how you can shape the messages you send going forward to promote healthy choices.
Today, in the short term, promoting healthy choices about alcohol can
- help you better understand what your teen is learning about alcohol and whether the messages they are receiving are desirable or need to change;
- strengthen communications between family members about the role of alcohol;
- help your teen make healthy choices and responsible decisions; and
- help you feel confident that you’ve prepared your teen to make healthy choices.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your teen
- builds capacity to assert boundaries and establish healthy relationships;
- cultivates healthy habits that will contribute to their ongoing emotional and mental wellbeing;
- feels more competent with making responsible, well-informed decisions;
- exercises greater self-control;
- makes more conscious choices about their behaviors; and
- feels a greater sense of trust and support from you.
Five Steps for Promoting Healthy Choices
This five-step process helps you and your teen learn more about alcohol use and how you can promote healthy choices, while preventing peer pressure that leads to alcohol use. 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.
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about healthy choices about alcohol by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your teen
- can think through and problem solve any peer pressure they might experience related to alcohol use;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies and taking responsibility for their own relationships);
- will have more motivation and courage to take responsibility for their actions; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Ask open-ended questions. Pick a time when you are enjoying being together or all is calm and relaxed. Driving in the car is ideal (when you don’t have a time pressure) since your teen will feel less “on-the-spot” because you are not looking directly at them. You might ask:
- “What have you noticed about how we use alcohol in our family?”
- “What are some of the mixed messages you hear about alcohol?”
- “What are some mixed messages you receive about alcohol in our family?”
- As your teen attempts to assert their independence while still being dependent on your household, the paradox can be frustrating and confusing for parents and teens alike. Seeking their input is critical because it offers valuable practice in thinking through decisions they might approach when they are on their own.
Your teen may have different impressions about your attitudes and values toward alcohol based on what they’ve observed. Listen carefully to their understanding of the role of alcohol in your family’s life and how they perceive your values. Their impressions may surprise you!
Don’t get caught up in feeling defensive about your own drinking practices. Keep focused on the fact that your teen is still only beginning to understand alcohol. Consider that you still hold significant influence on their decisions while they are living in your household, but in a few short years they may be living on their own. It’s a brand new chance to offer essential guidance. Focus on the impacts you can have today and in the future.
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 specific conversations about the role of alcohol. The first impressions about alcohol your teen may have formed could have come from a number of experiences watching adults. Because alcohol is present in daily life and at celebratory events, it can be challenging to figure out what lessons your teen has learned from that modeling. Yet modeling through your actions is the greatest teacher.
- Examine family messages around the role of alcohol and think about what they’re teaching your teen. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
- Is drinking alcohol a part of your daily lives? Weekly lives? When is alcohol present when your teen is around?
- Is alcohol consumed in moderation typically? Or, do individuals drink to the point of intoxication (more than 1-2 drinks)?
- Do teens sip or have a taste of alcohol at any events? Or, are teens given their own alcoholic beverages (under 21) at a certain age?
- When someone becomes intoxicated, how do other adults react to that person?
- Are they laughed at?
- Are they the source of ridicule?
- Are they a source of shame?
- Do people reject them?
- Do they become more popular?
- How is that person treated?
- If there are relatives that are dealing with alcohol use disorders like addiction, how are they treated by the family? How are they spoken about when they are not around?
- The answers to these questions formulate the modeling your teens witness and what they are currently being taught about alcohol. Though you may want to have the family value of kindness and loving support, alcohol use and abuse can be a source of shame in many families. Understanding what challenges you face can better position you to teach your teen about alcohol in healthy, constructive ways.
- Talk about your family history with alcohol. Research shows that children of those with an alcohol use disorder are between four and ten times more likely to become alcohol dependent themselves.4 These children are more likely to begin drinking at a younger age and progressively struggle as they grow.4 If this is true for your family, talking about family history can break that family cycle and teach your teen how to make healthy choices. Though all parents need to prepare their teens with information, coping strategies, and responsible decision-making skills, those families who have close relatives with alcohol use disorders are particularly vulnerable.
- Create empathy and compassion through understanding. Promote empathy and understanding as family members deal with challenges in life. This is the ideal time to teach your teen about the reasons behind alcohol use and misuse.
- Address your past drinking behavior or current alcohol use.
- Tell the truth about your past and current alcohol use. Your teen may be more aware of your drinking behaviors than you realize. Not being open about it can hurt the trust in your relationship. While you don’t need to glorify your drinking behaviors as a teen or young adult, you don’t want to lie or avoid the topic either. You can remind your teen that public health has changed over the years. There are many things known now that were not known then. There have been a lot of efforts to reduce underage drinking because now it is known to be far more harmful than was understood even 20 years ago.
- Explain why you want your teen to abstain from drinking and drug use. Some reasons include the increased risk of experiencing negative consequences, their brain is still developing, alcohol is an addictive substance, and a family history of alcohol or drug problems.
- Invite your teen to ask questions. Talking about your past drinking or drug use behavior or current alcohol or drug use can be a teachable moment. Emphasize what you have learned from your experience and why you have reached the conclusion that it is important for your teen not to drink or use drugs.
- Be clear about your expectations about alcohol and drug use.
- Talk about why people may use alcohol to manage stress. Digging a bit into the reasons behind alcohol use and misuse can begin to stir empathy for yourself and in your teen. This does not mean supporting the unhealthy behaviors but realizing that they have an illness they must treat, just as you might view a family member dealing with diabetes, asthma, or other chronic diseases. This is a family value worth communicating!
- Talk about the feelings someone might have who wants to escape their lives. Has your teen ever felt that way? Reassure your teen that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by your own problems at times. Offer your thoughts on ways you gain a bigger perspective on the world and the possibilities. How do you generate hope in your life?
- Take the learning further because your teen will need to find new ways to deal with the stress and social pressures they face. These new expectations on who they are and what they “should” do to belong and act adult-like can feel overwhelming to teens. So, this is the perfect time to discuss and brainstorm options for coping strategies. You could ask, “When you are upset, what makes you feel better?” Brainstorm a list together. Write it down.
- Discuss values. Instead of diving into a discussion about alcohol, first you may want to consider questions about health and healthy development.
- What do you do to keep healthy (diet, exercise, preventative doctor visits)?
- How do food and drinks fit into keeping your body healthy?
- What about the role of medicine? Do you take medication? For what and why? What is your attitude about medicine? When is it important to take it? When do you want to avoid taking it? If you take medication, what side effects have you experienced?
- What are the many substances that alter your body and brain like coffee, tea, over-the-counter medicine, prescription medicine, alcohol, energy drinks, others?
- How do those altering substances fit into a healthy lifestyle?
- What do you and/or your partner or other family members believe should be the role of alcohol in family life and with your teen?
- What do you want your teen to learn?
- How can you align your own actions with those values?
- Create a family ritual of expressing gratitude in your lives. Teens can get caught up in developmentally-normal social anxiety. You can create a balancing force by focusing on what is good, strong, and healthy in your lives. Whether you make a habit of sharing grateful thoughts while sitting down to a family meal or keep a running list on your family’s chalkboard, find a way to share specifics on what is positive in your lives, and your teen will start to think in those terms as well. Teens who are more aware of how they belong and are loved in their families, belong to a greater friendship group, school environment, and local community are more likely to respect rules and boundaries and make healthy choices.
- Set goals to demonstrate values. Draw a metaphorical line in the sand today. This is the first day of teaching your teen about alcohol. Now that you have articulated your family’s hopes and values for what you want to teach your teen, consider what goals you can set for yourself and what goals you can encourage your teen to set in order to align actions with values.
- Discover together opportunities to serve in your local community. What social issues does your teen care about? Pursue their interest and volunteer your time and energy in your community as a family. Afterward, reflect on the experience. How did your teen uniquely bring their gifts, talents, and sense of kindness and empathy to the task? What did they learn about how other people live and what their concerns are?
Did you know that giving anyone under age 21 sips of alcohol sends a clear message to teens and young adults that authority figures feel drinking is acceptable for them. These teens and young adults are more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs younger and more frequently with friends than those whose families who did not permit sipping.5 Researchers advise not allowing any drinking even on special occasions for those under 21.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary for teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your teen performs the new action.
- Take the first small step. If you’ve set a goal to leave situations that feel unsafe, for example, are there events or situations you know will be challenging? Set your family’s expectations ahead of time. If a wedding is coming up that you know could pose a challenge with drinking relatives, decide ahead of time on a reasonable time to leave together before trouble might begin. Find specific ways you and your teen can take small steps to work on the goals you’ve set.
- Practice empathy. When your teen comes home with reports of a conflict between friends or of a mistake a friend made, talk about that friend’s perspective. You could ask questions like, “Why would she have chosen to be mean to her friend when they’ve been friends since kindergarten?” Usually misguided behavior is evidence of hurt surfacing or unmet emotional needs. Practice digging for reasons with your teen and showing empathy for the person who is struggling. Instead of judging, your teen will practice understanding others’ feelings and thoughts better. This can be a significant asset as they navigate challenging social situations.
- When your teen comes to you with a peer pressure challenge, reflect back their feelings. Ask open-ended questions to prompt their thinking. Show your trust and support that they can solve their own problems with reflection.
- Tell stories of your own or your teen’s ability to empathize and be kind to others. These stories will begin to shape your teen’s identity as one who is able to empathize and act compassionately no matter the social pressures.
- Encourage leadership. After all, in every group, a leader emerges. And, they are typically the individuals who pressure others to go along with what they want to do. As you build your teen’s social and emotional skills – the very ones that are also key leadership skills – they will have an opportunity to influence the decision making of their friendship group.
- Your young leader will need to become regularly reflective about their choices since they’re influencing a group. Talk about social situations and opportunities for decisions. Give your teen plenty of chances to decide where they fall on a variety of social issues (exercising their sense of responsibility and right and wrong).
When your teen comes to you with an interpersonal problem whether it’s with a friend or a teacher, reflect back feelings. Ask what choices your teen might have in communicating with this other person. Perhaps, offer supportive language that will help them broach the topic. Then, show your confidence that they can manage their own communications and work through their own problems.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve learned together about the mixed messages and modeling your teen encounters related to alcohol consumption. You’ve practiced by setting goals and working toward them together while sharing success stories. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different. But, the challenge of this age range is that they may initiate a fight if they feel you view them as not fully competent. Be sure you are empowering them to think through consequences of their choices. Be there if they need you but only if they ask for your support.
- Ask key questions.
- “How are you feeling about your friends? Do they treat you well? Do they pressure you?”
- “Are there times when your friends or other classmates want you to do something you don’t want to do?”
- Reflect on outcomes. “Seems like you are worrying today about your friends and their impressions of you. Often it helps if you talk about it. What’s going on?”
- 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.
- Use any opportunity to talk about the mixed messages regarding alcohol in society, in the media, or at home.
- Engage in further practice. Talk about times when you don’t want to go with the crowd. Perhaps the school PTA made a decision and you weren’t supportive. How will you keep your relationships but also make responsible decisions for yourself and your family that may not go along with the crowd? Help build your teen’s leadership and assertive communication skills by talking about times when you set healthy boundaries and maintained relationships as well.
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 notice you really reflected on your friend’s teasing of a classmate and walked away instead of joining in. That’s really taking responsibility and showing empathy for others!”
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 talk with your friend about not going to the party, I will let you have additional screen time after dinner” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You shared your concerns about the party with your friend. Love seeing 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. Times when your teen chooses something different than what the crowd is doing are times to recognize. Stopping to reflect on relationships and considering consequences and how their decisions will impact others are the fundamentals of responsible decision making and deserve recognition.
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition is a tool to promote positive behaviors. Find small ways your teen is making an effort, like using self-control, and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Teens are constantly seeking new adventures and the thrill of trying out something new. Keep this in mind when considering celebrations.
Your teen is trying to define their identity as an independent person. Comments that point out how they are acting in ways that are self-sufficient will help them see how their decision making is defining who they are and what they value.
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.