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Kids and Alcohol: Where Does a Parent Begin

Guest Editorial
By Mary Roufa, M.S. CADC,
Adolescent Family Program Coordinator
Rosecrance Health Network 

In today’s society there is much a young person has to deal with to navigate through  adolescence. There are the normal struggles with the many changes of body, mind, peers, education, family expectations, increasing responsibilities and privileges. Parents want to help their child negotiate those changes, but they are too often left with more questions than answers. How do I keep my child safe in today’s world? What is okay and what is not okay for my child? What messages should I send with regard to alcohol use that my child will hear? Isn’t drinking a rite of passage? Will my child like me if I set limits?

For centuries alcohol has been the drug of choice marking everything from spiritual gatherings to family celebrations. Many parents experimented, used and abused alcohol when they were adolescents. Sometimes a parent’s personal history makes them reluctant to set limits for their own child. But what we know today about alcohol’s impact on society is beyond the available information of the past. Today we know that:

  • The human brain is not fully developed until 22-25 years of age
  • The younger a person begins use of alcohol or other drugs the quicker they can become addicted
  • According to the National Institute of Health, those who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin at age 21

We also know that children coming from a family history of alcoholism/addiction are at much higher risk to become addicted, even if raised in a home without alcohol or other drugs Knowing these risk factors a parent can be secure in the knowledge that this is a serious health issue, not a moral issue or a rite of passage. It is okay to allow our children  to negotiate their world without encouraging or condoning the use of alcohol or other drugs. How does a parent do that? What helps to send those messages that it is not okay to drink?

“One of the most important things a parent can do regarding risk taking behaviors  including substance abuse or experimentation is to have a relationship with their child  that leaves the communication lines open,” explains Dr. Thomas Wright, noted expert in adolescent psychology and addiction. “The most significant, most influential part of any teenager’s life is their family. This relationship can have a great deal of meaning to the teen even if they aren’t saying that it does.”

Children who hear a clear message from their parents that drug and alcohol use will not be tolerated are 36 percent less likely to smoke pot, 50 percent less likely to use inhalants, and 56 percent less likely to use cocaine, according to recent reports. In addition, teens that have a clear understanding of their parents’ expectations and believe their actions will result in greater consequences are significantly less likely to experiment.

At Rosecrance, we make the following recommendations to parents:

  • Keep yourself available for conversations with your child and take the opportunity to let them know it is not OK to drink and what you will support and not support and why
  • Spend time with your child on a regular basis so those lines of communication stay open
  • Know who your child’s friends are and also who their parents are. Let your child know you will check with a friend’s parent when there are plans for a party or overnight
  • Talk about having a plan if your child finds themselves in a situation where there is alcohol or other drugs
  • Let them know what privileges they can earn over time as they demonstrate responsible decision making
  • Let them know that if they break trust what privileges will be lost
  • Set boundaries and follow through with natural consequences when trust is broken
  • Work with your partner to send consistent, firm and loving messages
  • Know it is OK to be your child’s parent and not their friend at this time in their lives.

Understanding that communication is a key factor in substance abuse prevention, Rosecrance Health Network developed a 15-minute DVD entitle “Take the Time” which talks directly to parents. Experts from the areas of substance abuse treatment, education and law enforcement discuss the current climate of teen substance use and  experimentation and ways to prevent abuse. To view the DVD online, visit


Talking To Kids About Alcohol and Drugs

Father and SonWhy should parents talk regularly about the risks of alcohol and drugs?

  1. Because it works.
    Research indicates that kids whose parents talk to them openly about alcohol and drugs are significantly less likely to engage in risky behavior.
  2. Kids care how you feel.
    Studies among students revealed that parents are the #1 reason they don’t use alcohol or drug. They don’t want to disappoint their parents, and don’t want to suffer the consequences, either.
  3. They need your information, perspective, and advice.
    As kids reach new developmental stages, they need more specific information about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Parents must be there to provide this information in a warm and loving way, complete with the rules that exist in their family. Programs at school can provide some of the information, but not with the kind of guidance or timing that a parent can provide.
  4. It is a myth that educating kids about the specifics of drugs and alcohol will make them more likely to try them.
    In fact, just the opposite is true.  As parents provide information about the risks, they also teach kids to think differently about people who abuse substances, making kids less likely to want to spend time with kids who exhibit risky behavior.
  5. Kids want to have boundaries; they recognize (despite their complaining) that parents who have rules to protect their kids actually care about them.
    It is okay to say “we don’t allow drugs or alcohol in our house; we don’t allow you to use them.” Be firm, be clear, and be prepared to deliver consequences if your rules are not observed.

When should parents talk to kids about the risks?


  1. Early and often.  It is a fact of life that kids are being exposed to risky behavior at younger and younger ages. The average age in America of first use of alcohol is age 11, and the average age of first exposure to marijuana is age 12. Parents should ingrain in their kids the information that alcohol and drugs can be harmful before they are faced with these choices.  Starting in pre-school and continuing through college, parents should talk (and listen) about the impact of drugs, tobacco, and alcohol on young people.
  2. Use language that kids can understand, especially with students in preschool or elementary years. It is important to help them understand the differences between drugs used as medicine and drugs used in improper and dangerous ways.  See below for tips by age.
  3. Have regular conversations with your kids about risky behavior. The best time to bring up information about drugs and alcohol is when they bring up the topic.  Ask a lot of questions, being careful to listen to what concerns they have.  Use teachable moments to address the subject (a TV show, watching someone smoke, observing someone who has had too much to drink, etc), rather than just having a one time “talk.”  There is no simple one time innoculation for substance abuse prevention, unfortunately
  4. Add tips for dealing with situations that begin to arise as kids reach middle school. Ages 13-14 is an important transition time, when kids are particularly at risk.
  5. Don’t stop when kids are in college. They still value your thoughts, but listen carefully so you get a picture of the issues they are facing. Try to stay calm, even when their comments scare you, in order to keep the conversation flowing.


What should parents say?


  1.  Get educated about the substances your kids are being exposed to today.  Things have changed significantly since when you were young; the drugs are stronger, different, more available, putting kids at greater risk than in earlier decades. You can contact LEAD for pamphlets and articles, or go to the websites listed below.
  2. Present the information in a firm yet warm way. you don’t want your kids to be using these things because it will hurt them and you love them.  But you can also say “We don’t find alcohol or drug use acceptable for you”.
  3. Be specific about the effects of drugs and make sure your information is correct.  Don’t exaggerate or use incorrect information, or your credibility will be at risk.
  4. Be an active listener. Kids as young as 10 report that they are worried about the pressure to be involved with drugs or alcohol. Parent studies show that parents are far less worried than their kids are!  Help them deal with these pressures!
  5. Work on role playing.  If you can, try to give them some tools to deal with peer group pressures.
  6. Be firm and don’t give in on your rules.  “Kids who admitted to drinking or using illegal drugs were twice as likely to say they can always change the mind of an adult to get their way.”  (Washington Post, July, 2006). You CAN hold the line.
  7. See below for tips for talking with kids by age group.


For Parents of Children Ages 4-7


  • Be open to questions and concerns your child might have about alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.  Help them understand the difference between medicine used appropriately, and drugs used for other purposes then getting well.
  • Talk to your spouse about the role that alcohol, smoking, or drug consumption plays in your family, and how you want that to be viewed by your child. They are soaking up information in many ways, in your home, at family gatherings, etc. and you want that message to be a healthy one.
  • Parents who are supportive and good listeners, and who encourage lots of conversations with their children have been shown to have more success raising children who make good decisions.  Start this when the children are young and keep it up!  Talking at bedtime is effective for many parents, when both of you are relaxed and loving.
  • Be watchful for things your child might be troubled or unhappy about and try to help them work through them. They will learn to trust you when they are struggling with issues, and will come to you with problems more frequently as they grow up.


For Parents of Children Ages 8-10


  • If you have not initiated a discussion about the risks of alcohol, tobacco, or drug use, now is the time to do it.  Provide facts as well as your family values on their use.
  • Try to be factual without exaggeration. Explain why some people use these substances and what risks they are taking.
  • Again, be aware of your own behavior about these substances, as children will be more likely adopt your behaviors.
  • Help young people practice taking responsibility, and learning about consequences in other areas of their life. However, drugs and alcohol are not good examples of places to allow them to practice—there are plenty of other ways for kids to learn about growing up.
  • Be realistic about the potential for your child to be exposed to alcohol and tobacco, maybe even drugs.  Nobody wants to be the clueless parent. Have your antenna up.
  • Start early making it clear that use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs will not be tolerated.


For Parents of Children Ages 11-14

  • Parents who are described by their adolescents as supportive, involved and understanding are much less likely to pursue risky behavior.  Try hard to communicate these attributes, even as preteens and young teens act in ways that confuse or annoy you.
  • Kids this age are curious about alcohol and drugs. It is critical to provide them with information before they have the opportunity to use them. Use TV shows, newspaper articles, information from their health classes, to trigger a family conversation.
  • Make sure you know where your child is, who they are hanging out with.  Call to insure that parents will be home. Research has shown that most early drinking happens in someone’s home; in fact, it is often in your own home.
  • Check on the inventory of alcohol in your house, and lock it up if you can, to avoid potential problems.
  • Kids are undergoing a lot of changes during these years, and sometimes they can feel sad or depressed. This can lead to substance abuse, and try to help them deal with their feelings; seek professional help early if you don’t seem to be getting through.
  • Reinforce that the use of these substances are not allowed and you will be terribly disappointed if they participate in such behavior.
  • Get a copy of “How to Talk To Your Adolescent About Alcohol” from the LEAD office.
  • Practice role playing, helping your child deal with situations where they might be confronted with a choice about alcohol or drugs.  Some families find that establishing a code word over the phone enables a youth to get out of situations, without loss of face.
  • Make sure you are aware of local curfew laws—11pm on weeknights, 12 pm on weekends.  Your family curfew could be earlier, of course, and should be for younger teens.


For Parents of Children Ages 15-18


  • Be on the lookout for alcohol, tobacco or drug use—these are the most risky years.  Occasionally check out your teen’s room, and get educated on the contemporary forms of drugs, or drug paraphernalia. Stay awake (if you can) to monitor kids condition as they return home from an evening’s events.
  • Reconsider sleepovers.  Research has shown that groups of teens together are more likely to engage in risky behavior.
  • Stay informed about the negative effects of alcohol, tobacco or drug use, particularly regarding academic performance or sports performance.  As students are working hard to get into college, or succeed at a sport, they need to know that such behavior puts their goals at risk.
  • Enforce the curfew (parents are not allowed to deviate from the local curfew, anyway). After they are 18, set a family curfew that fits with the trust level that you have with your student.
  • Make sure you communicate the family rules clearly and hold the line.  There are several myths that exist about teen drinking that you should consider (see myths).  You can uphold the rules in your household, even though you might feel like the “meanest parent” in town. You are in good company!  And make sure both parents are on the same page about rules and consequences.
  • Be realistic about consequences; being “grounded for life” is not effective, even though you wish it could be so sometimes.
  • Watch your inventory of alcoholic beverages or prescription drugs, and insure they are not being used by kids.
  • Again, be mindful of your own behavior and what message it sends to your kids.
  • Be aware that college visits during junior or senior year can be very risky for kids, as they are thrown into the college environment.  A new study has found that these visits can also put kids at risk for dangerous behavior, unwanted sexual activity, and other risky situations….
  • Don’t feel obligated to discuss your own alcohol or drug use at their age, or in college. You are older and wiser now, and while it might be fun to remember the good old days, as a parent you know much more now about the risks that you might have taken years ago.
  • Kids feel they are being responsible by having a designated driver—while this does help the risks on the road, it does nothing to protect your youth from the many other risks of drinking heavily—not the least of which are sexual assault, alcoholism, injuries from falls or fighting, and so forth.  Make sure you emphasize this.
  • Research has shown that parents impose fewer consequences on boys than girls (“boys will be boys”?). Be careful not to be more permissive with a son than a daughter— the risks are great for both.

For Parents of Children in College

  • Kids returning home from college often assume the rules have changed—you must make clear the rules for your underage children. It is still illegal for kids under 21 to drink, it is still very dangerous to drive with any alcohol or marijuana in their systems, and the consequences with the law are significant.  Be sure to have family consequences as well, regardless of whether they are caught by the police.
  • Set a curfew.  While there is no longer a local curfew in effect, you can certainly have a family one, which gets them off the road at the risky wee hours of the night.
  • Parties at your home, without you in attendance, put your students and you at risk if alcohol or drugs are present. Be firm.
  • Be aware that if you or an older sibling serves underage students alcohol, you are subject to legal prosecution.
  • Ask your kids about the situation at school—encourage them to talk about what goes on. Try not to react emotionally even though what they say scares you.  Try to get them to be open, and share your concerns. They will hear you.
  • Fake ID’s are very common among college students—talk to your student about whether he has one; make sure he is aware of the consequences of being caught with an ID, and how you feel about his possession of one.
  • If you sense your child has a problem with drugs or alcohol seek help—and do everything you can to get them to seek help on their own.


What other things can parents to protect kids?


  1. Know your kids friends and their families. Sometimes you are able to find out information from another parent, who heard it from her child, which you should know.  Develop those lines of communication.  And make sure to understand other families’ rules, and attitudes about alcohol, drugs, and other things that might concern you.
  2. Establish clear boundaries and reasonable, yet firm, consequences.  For help, consider taking a “Love and Logic” class, in order to learn a simple and effect way to develop these skills.
  3. Set a good example.  Watch your own behavior about the role of alcohol or drugs in your life, and be aware that kids are very adept at picking up these things. Kids will often do as they see you do, not as you say.
  4. Have dinner together regularly. Countless studies have shown that families that dine together communicate better, and kids feel more connected, and are less likely to exhibit risky behavior.
  5. Monitor your kid’s behavior.  Keep tabs on where they are going, who they are with, what condition they are in when they return home.
  6. If you sense a problem with drug or alcohol use, seek help right away. Don’t wait until a crisis pulls your family apart. Seek out a school social worker, therapist, or psychologist to help you. For referrals, you can call the LEAD office for confidential suggestions.
  7. Exchange ideas with other parents.  Attend the several parent networking sessions that the middle school and high school have, or form a group among your friends.  Agree to help one another hold the line and protect kids.


Tips for Parents Who Want to Hold the Line About Drinking

It is tough to be an “enforcer.”  These are some of the things we recommend:

  • Be consistent about the talk.  Mention it regularly, be firm. Don’t waver.
  • Have a driving contract, even if it is a not so new driver. After all it is the parents car (usually).  See new driver contract for more information.
  • Set up an agreement for no questions asked pickup–and mean it.  Doesn’t mean the day after there wouldn’t be conversations….this one is very hard to get kids to do…but data from our local surveys indicates that kids are riding with others who have been drinking and they are sometimes driving themselves after drinking, even though most kids say they don’t.
  • Be up at night to do the kiss test. Hard to do, I was always sleepy.  Some kids are really good about gum, mints, so this is not easy.
  • Don’t be naive about vomiting or hangover.  If it is on the weekend, your kid most likely doesn’t have the flu.
  • If there is clearly a sign of alcohol use and the kid denies it, and won’t say where they got the liquor, be tough and say you will take them to LF Hospital for a test (at any hour that is possible
  • If you suspect, check around their room.  It is not at all unusual for kids to stash alcohol, in shoe boxes, on top of closets, in old bags, etc.  Nothing like hard evidence to get the conversation going.
  • If you really think drinking is going on despite your firm wishes, you can take your child to see a psychologist or therapist trained in substance abuse detection and treatment.  It makes a strong point with the kids, they hate it, but it gives you another opportunity to have an adult say what you have been saying. The counselors the local high schools and middles schools are very approachable, can do assessments and will gladly discuss the problem with you or your children.
  • Model designated driving and alcohol use in moderation. This is so key—and not always as easy as it sounds.
  • Talk to the parents of your kid’s friends to see how they feel. Have a dinner party, talk.  The kids probably hate this too, but it can be really valuable.  Gives you an inside look at how other people feel. Or host a coffee with a Coalition representative as a facilitator—gets everyone talking and takes the burden off one family to bring up the issue.