Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. National trend data show we are headed in the right direction. Alcohol use among teens across the United States is less prevalent than even five years ago. In Montana, rates of alcohol use among high school students are slightly higher than the national average.1 There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child/teen relationship, and helping your child/teen learn about ways to deal with peer pressure provides a perfect opportunity.
Children/Teens require risk taking in order to exercise their responsible decision-making abilities. Children/Teens ages 11-14 will be introduced to greater risk-taking opportunities whether that involves alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behaviors. This age group also tends to witness an increase in teasing and harassment at school. Peer pressure can also consume your child/teen with worries about “fitting in.”
Children/Teens ages 11-14 also gain a deeper social awareness that allows them to see from the perspective of their peers. This newfound empathy can create social anxiety and – as with any new capacity – may lead to 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. And, their need to belong becomes even greater as they assert their independence. These challenges arise as a normal part of your child’s/teen’s development.
Yet, we all face challenges in dealing with peer pressure about alcohol. “Why can’t I go to Marianna’s party?” you may hear from your twelve-year-old when you know the party will be unsupervised. Underage drinking remains a temptation for our children/teens, and alcohol can have a major impact on their brain development.2 Power struggles may emerge as your child’s/teen’s goal is to be liked by peers while your goal is to keep them safe.
The key to many parenting challenges, like dealing with peer pressure about alcohol, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and their needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Why Peer Pressure?
If we learn about our children’s/teens’ developmental needs, we can better ensure that they are getting those needs met in healthy ways. You’ll learn many new and simple strategies for going about this in the tool that follows. And, the benefits are many.
Today, in the short term, you’ll:
- 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
- feel confident that you’ve prepared your child/teen to stay safe.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:
- builds capacity to assert boundaries, use self-control, and establish healthy relationships that will serve them for a lifetime; and
- cultivates healthy habits that will contribute to their ongoing emotional and mental wellbeing.
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen work together to establish boundaries and support in dealing with peer pressure related to 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 dealing with peer pressure related to 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 related to 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 rules and guidelines);
- 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 lives and relationships; and
- will grow problem-solving skills.
- Find a time when your child/teen feels like talking and you are not pressured. Questions you could ask include:
- “How are you feeling about your friendships? Do you feel you can really trust at least one friend?” (Friendships contribute to emotional wellbeing, and it only takes one trusted friend – the number of friends does not matter.)
- “What are you and your friends most interested in trying that’s new and different?”
- “Are there times when your friends are doing things you don’t want to?”
Listen for interests your child/teen might have for trying out healthy risks whether it involves entering an art contest or climbing a rock wall. Offer plenty of healthy outlets for exploration, and your child/teen and their friends will have less of a need to seek out unhealthy ones.
Listen to where your child/teen likes to see friends. Offer opportunities for healthy hangouts by offering your home and being around to provide snacks, games, and supervision or suggest safe public hangouts like the ice cream shop, rec center, or the roller rink.
Listen closely to the insights your child/teen might provide about times when they feel peer pressure. Since it can be a sensitive issue, don’t expect an immediate response; raise the question and allow time and space for consideration.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Though your child/teen has likely been exposed throughout 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 right and wrong. It is also helpful to know how alcohol impacts a child’s/teen’s growing body and brain differently from adults and your own family’s values around drinking that can add weight and importance to this valuable discussion.
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 follow through on meaningful, logical consequences when expectations are not met.
- Learn the facts together. Yes, read this next section with your child/teen. This is not information that is widely known (but it should be). So, become informed about the impacts of alcohol on a child’s/teen’s brain development together. The laws around underage drinking make better sense when you understand the implications.
- Researchers are finding that the teenage years may be a particularly vulnerable time for adverse effects from alcohol because of brain development. 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 use and abuse can get in the way of normal development.2 In fact, experts claim adolescent brains might just be more vulnerable than in any other time of life because of this major brain development that is occuring. Adolescent alcohol use can lead to:3
- Knowing what the laws require can help provide a starting point for discussion. Laws are rules we as a society agree are important 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 their values. Montana laws 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 concentration, or the point at which there is physical or mental impairment. That level can be achieved with 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 (DUI) citation is given for a 0.02 blood alcohol level.6
- Those under 21 years of age may drink alcohol provided by the
- Co-create a plan. Talk in a non-judgmental way (no blaming or naming) about some choices your child/teen might have for leaving an unhealthy situation. You could ask:
- “If you are feeling pressured and need to get out, what truthful excuses can we come up with together to leave the situation?”
- “What code can we establish (use your cell phones) so I know to pick you up immediately, no questions asked?“
- Discuss values. Instead of diving into a discussion about alcohol, first you may want to talk about health and healthy development. You and your family may want to consider the following questions:
- “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?”
- Then, you might consider the following: “What do you and/or your partner or other family members believe about the role of alcohol in family life and with children/teens? What do you want them to learn?”
- Demonstrate values.
Researchers find that allowing children/teens under the age of 21 to sip alcohol sends a clear message to children/teens that authority figures feel drinking is acceptable for them. These children/teens are more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs at younger ages and more frequently with friends.7 Researchers advise not allowing any drinking even on special occasions for those under 21.
Let your child/teen know feeling peer pressure is normal. Everyone feels it at some point. The trick is knowing when to go along and when to bow out gracefully.
If you are in a circumstance in which relatives become obviously intoxicated, it’s your responsibility to get your family to safety. Leave the celebration. Let your child/teen know that the reason you are leaving is because there are adults who have made unhealthy choices and have lost their sense of control. This is modeling your own resistance to peer pressure!
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.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Your support for your child/teen in dealing with peer pressure about alcohol can offer opportunities for them to practice new skills if you seize those chances. Social pressure can be one of the strongest forces we face in our lives. And, our children/teens lack experience in dealing with it. Offering them practice in the safety of your supportive home can mean the difference between a child/teen who will feel prepared when challenged or caught unaware.
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 faces peer pressure.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s/teen’s sense that they can respond to friends and peers with courage and conviction. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Practice assertive communication. Offer your child/teen simple, everyday ways to practice standing kindly and firmly up to others for their needs or values. Respect a response like: “I’m done playing” or prompt: “Seems like you need some quiet, alone time. You can always tell me, ‘Mom, I need some alone time.’”
- When your child/teen comes to you with a relationship problem, play coach not problem solver. “How is it making you feel? What choices do you have? What might happen if you try that out?”
- Offer conversation starters like “I-messages” to communicate needs in ways that do not place blame or harm anyone. “I feel uncomfortable when you ask me to drink because I don’t want to.”
- Set a family rule to respect a genuine “no” response from all in your household. Discuss the reasons why they are refusing. Consider whether or not their decision is based on healthy boundaries. Consider: Would the decision to go ahead with what you want harm anyone emotionally or physically including your child/teen? If so, then your child/teen is setting an important boundary.
Tell stories of your own or your child’s/teen’s ability to think and act outside the social box. In other words, how has your child/teen made a decision on their own that hasn’t been popular but was right for them? Celebrate that sense of confidence and independence. These stories will begin to further shape their identity as one who is able to think and act for themselves.
Notice when you yourself feel peer pressure and call it out. Let your child/teen know how you felt when you didn’t have time to bake for the school bake sale but were pressured into doing it anyway. Be sure and note the times when you were able to say “no” and especially how you did it kindly while preserving the friendship.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve learned together the key facts about alcohol consumption, how it can impact a child’s/teen’s brain development, and the legal requirements. You’ve practiced resisting social pressures together and shared success stories. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. 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. “How do you respond 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 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. 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?
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, your attention is 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 resist unhealthy peer pressures – 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 their 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. For example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I notice you decided to study instead of skipping it to go out with friends. 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, using self-control, and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Children/Teens are constantly seeking new adventures and the thrill of trying out something new. Keep this in mind when considering celebrations. Could you try rock climbing as a family? Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “I notice you really reflected on whether or not to go with James to that party considering all of the potential risks. That’s really taking responsibility and thinking through consequences!” – can promote more of the same.
This age group is trying to define their identity as an independent person. Comments that point out how they are acting in ways that are self-sufficient and ethically driven will help them see how their decision making is defining who they are and what they value.
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.