When is it too early to talk about alcohol with your children?

teenagers drinking in the park

With graduation season in full swing and summer approaching fast, everyone is in a celebratory mood. As you prepare to celebrate your teen’s achievements with them, here are some reminders about safety when it comes to drinking.

Do teens drink even though alcohol purchase and consumption is illegal under the age of 21?

Data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that more than half of all high school students in Houston reported ever drinking alcohol (56.1 percent), and 1 in 4 teens in Houston reported drinking alcohol in the past month.

Of course, the best way to avoid the negative effects of alcohol on the brain and body is to avoid drinking altogether. Alcohol can have immediate effects, such as disrupting brain communication which can lead to mood changes, poor coordination and altered decision making. Drinking heavily in the long-term, or binge drinking, can have negative effects on multiple organs including the heart, liver, pancreas and the immune system. This is particularly important as about 10 percent of teens in Houston have reported having more than five drinks on one occasion in the past month, based on the CDC data.

When should I start talking with my kids about alcohol?

General consensus is the sooner the better. The most recent data from the CDC shows that close to 20 percent of teens in Houston had their first drink before age 13. Experts recommend starting the conversation as early as age 10, keeping in mind that a one-time talk is not enough and you don’t have to cover everything the first time. But it’s a good idea to open the lines of communication at an earlier age, when kids tend to be more influenced in their decisions by family, rather than peers.

How do I talk to my teen about alcohol?

One of the most protective factors against teenage drinking is a strong and open family relationship. Being involved with their life, activities and friends provides parents more opportunities to discuss alcohol and other safety-related issues. It also allows you to get to know other parents and ensure safety at get-togethers and providing alternative fun activities that do not involve alcohol.

Before you talk with your children, it’s important to monitor your own practices and how you talk about alcohol with other adults. Your kids will take away more from observing your attitudes about alcohol than what you tell them. They will notice if you talk about alcohol in a positive way, as a way to relieve stress, relax or have a good time. Provide non-alcoholic drink options at your functions to counter the idea that everybody drinks.

When you talk with your teens, set clear expectations, rules and consequences and share your reasoning with them. You can choose to discuss the negative health outcomes, car accidents, legal issues, etc. More than 3,000 Houston youth said they rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking alcohol in the past month, and more than 1,400 said they drove themselves after drinking in the past month one or more times. Discussing safety and harm reduction if your teen chooses to drink can save their life. You can put in place a backup plan to arrange rides for them if they are going to be at a party or if they find themselves in a compromising situation.

Discuss alcohol portrayal in the media if you are watching a show or a commercial together and ask your teens what they see and how that could influence their attitudes.

It is important to talk with your teens about alcohol even if it is not part of your family’s culture, as teens are likely exposed to it outside the house and are more likely to drink if their peers drink. Talking about different situations and how to stand against peer pressure can provide your children with the tools and confidence necessary to avoid being pressured into a situation with potentially negative consequences.

The bottom line is talk with your children early, talk to them often, listen and keep open lines of communication.

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About Dr. Salina Mostajabian, adolescent medicine fellow

I am an adolescent medicine fellow at Texas Children's Hospital.
Posted in 101, Adolescent Medicine, Parenting

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