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How to talk to your kids about alcohol, according to substance abuse experts

If you wait too long to talk about drinking, your kids may have already formed their own opinions. Here's what experts say to their own kids.
Image: Teen drinking
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that by the age of 15, over one-third of teens have had at least one alcoholic drink, a number that roughly doubles by age 18.Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and though it may be winding to a close, the problem of underage drinking carries on. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that by the age of 15, over one-third of teens have had at least one alcoholic drink, a number that roughly doubles by age 18. Binge-drinking is also a big risk among this age group, a behavior that can lead to injury, memory and learning problems and chronic conditions like heart disease.

How can you tackle this tough but necessary topic of underage drinking with your kids? We talked to substance abuse and mental heath experts who are also parents to learn the best tactics and techniques.

Start the conversation early (and have it often)

Often parents think the best way to tackle heavy “adult” issues is to have a formal sit-down talk where they lay down the rules. You may want to opt for a more casual talk that is more of an ongoing dialogue throughout their childhood and adolescence.

“Start the conversations when they're young, and keep them ongoing,” says Elizabeth Conlin, director of quality assurance at KeyStone Center and the mother of 19-year old twins. “My kids know I work in a rehab and that I do not condone underage drinking, so these conversations [naturally] started when they were young, and came up whenever it was appropriate, like if something happened in the media or with older kids at their school. I would ask them questions like, ‘What do you think about that? How do you think that happened? Why do you think that person got involved with doing that?’”

Start when they’re young

Conlin adds that the frequency and age to start these talks really depends on the family, but for her, “these talks were early and often, and I started making it a casual topic when they were around nine or ten.”

If you wait to have these tough talks until their teenagers you may have missed the [window] and they may have formulated their own ideas about having a drink.

Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health clinician and the mother of four whose ages range from six to 17, doesn’t think there’s a wrong age to start talking about substance abuse especially with easy access to the Internet.

“My five year old can work the iPad and can get knowledge on her own,” Viciere tells NBC News BETTER. “If you wait to have these tough talks until their teenagers you may have missed the [window] and they may have formulated their own ideas about having a drink.”

Little kids will ask questions — don’t shut them down and have answers ready

Kids are curious and they will ask questions. Crystal Rice, a social worker certified in advanced trauma treatment with three children (ages eight, six and three) finds that often, the parental instinct is to try to postpone answering them rather than tackling them immediately simply because they aren’t ready to talk about this stuff.

“A lot of families that aren’t ready for the questions their kids ask tend to shut them down because they’re planning these big talks,” says Rice. “But it’s important to address these questions and be prepared to do so. My eight-year-old daughter just asked me the other day what I was drinking. It was a beer. She asked why she was not allowed to have it and I explained that it is a drug that is not legal for people under the age of 21. She’s only eight so she wants a quick and easy answer in a way that makes sense her.”

Be open about your drinking habits

Rice and the other mental health experts we consulted note that transparency about your own drinking habits is key.

“You can't hide anything from kids. They know before you realize they know, and they internalize everything,” says Viciere. “If they see ‘Mommy has wine and she is happy; I am sad so maybe I need wine” they may sneak some. I hear a lot of kids talking about this — sneaking into the liquor cabinet. So, you have say ‘Yes, mommy is drinking wine’ and talk about why it’s not for kids.”

Viciere adds that she may be more “hyper-vigilant” about the negative repercussions of drinking than a parent who doesn’t work with people struggling with or healing from substance abuse, but that any parent can be more self-aware about how they communicate about their drinking, as well as imparting the increased risks of developing a problem if you start drinking at an early age.

Same goes with any Rx pills

If you’re taking medication, be open about its purpose.

“Kids see us take our medication and if we don't say what it is for, they just see us popping pills,” adds Viciere. “They may internalize that as something we do in secret to feel better. So be intentional in talking about any substances you use and make it casual. Kids don’t do formal nowadays, not with social media around.”

Role play worst-case scenarios with your kids with other adults

Rice teaches a monthly class for foster and adoptive parents to help them care for traumatized kids. Here, she implements a technique that can be helpful for any parent. Essentially, Rice explains, the parents role play with one another, rehearsing how they might handle all kinds of scenarios involving with their kids.

“So, for instance, they could play out what they would do if their kid comes home and says they drank or were offered alcohol,” explains Rice. “The point of this is to make you prepared for absolutely anything so that you don’t miss a beat should your kids say something shocking to you. The minute you get that deer-in-the- headlights look on your face, your kid becomes uncomfortable and they’ll want to pull back. In my work, I’m trained to listen to everything and not react with surprise or horror; role-playing can help parents do the same. ”

Role play drinking situations with your kids, too

You should also role-play with your teens in advance of their being exposed to situations where underage drinking happens.

“I recommend playing the role of their [drink-encouraging] friend when talking about what they might do. Really push them on it and get into the role. This is better than just asking what they will do, in which case they’ll just give you the right answer: that they’ll refuse. Role-playing puts them in a situation where they have to free-think a response, which forces them to really be aware of what is happening in the conversation.”

Tell stories about how you dealt with drinking as a teen — even if they're embarrassing

Rice also recommends sharing your own recollections about underage drinking, whether you partook or had friends that did. “Casually mention how your best friend got wasted at prom and something bad happened, or whatever it is,” she says. “This is great because it opens up your life and it doesn’t put the subject on them. They will hear it with no ugly back and forth, and maybe they’ll ask you about it later because that seed will have been planted.”

Develop a support system you can tap into at moment's notice

Hopefully your kids won't have an issue with substance abuse, but as Dr. Conlin is quick to point out, "you can do everything right and they can still be wired to have a problem." Make sure you have a stable support system in place even if everything is going fine — just so you won't be left in a lurch should a crisis strike.

“We hope to reach them before [they take a drink], but sometimes we can't regardless of what we do,” notes Viciere. “Have an online community, trusted friends and if accessible, a therapist. You can't support your kid if you don’t support yourself.”


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