Drinking comes up all the time when I’m working with parents. It’s one of those ‘teen issues’ that folks have a lot of feelings about. I think people sometimes forget that it’s actually a ‘societal issue’ and they make an unconscious choice to focus on young people using alcohol rather than look at their own habits.
Why do we drink?
People drink alcohol because of its mood-altering properties. People want to change their emotional state and they often use alcohol to accomplish this. Teens are no different than us in this respect.
One state that teenagers may want to change is the way they feel around closeness and sexuality. Teens want to feel more comfortable and confident as they navigate friendship and intimacy. Which is kind of like the rest of us.
Usually teenagers initially try alcohol because the mystery and prohibition have piqued their curiosity. They’ve also watched the whole culture of good-time-party-with-your-friends for years and want to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. Then there is the fact that their peers might be experimenting with booze, and that makes it even more fascinating.
The teenage transition
As I have said many times before, teenagers are internally compelled to transition into their own person, separate from their parents and their family, with their own values and interests and perspectives. This is called ‘growing up’. Even if you don’t like this process you can’t change it. Your teenager is on a one-way train speeding towards adulthood, so you better get used to this.
If you say to your teen, ‘you’re too young to drink’ they might say, ‘I disagree’; if you say, ‘don’t drink’ they might say, ‘I will anyway’ or they might go along with you verbally but then drink in secret. You can draw a line in the sand, but teenagers pretty much don’t care and they will do what they want. You’ve got to ask yourself why you’re drawing that line. What are you hoping to accomplish with the line?
Humans can rationalize anything
Teenagers behave the way they do because there is some good reason for it in their mind, just like we justify and rationalize our own behaviour. We all have great reasons for the things we do even if they are irrational or inexplicable to someone else. We all convince ourselves that we have perfectly good reasons for doing dumb things. One of the dumbest thing I consistently do is deprive myself of sleep because there are *really important things* I need to take care of late at night or early in the morning.
Why is it that wearing short shorts, or posting provocative Instagrams, or underage drinking all seem like such great ideas to the teens that do these things? We need to find out. We need to ask questions that won’t make them defensive and genuinely and compassionately listen to their responses. If you don’t know why they do what they do then ask! Asking good questions is a must-have parenting skill.
Remember that all of us act irrationally (not in our own best interests, or the best interests of other living beings including the ecosystem) much of the time. We don’t get enough exercise, we eat foods that don’t contribute to our well-being, we engage with toxic people, we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. How can we judge our teenagers as acting without forethought when so often we do the same?
Teens want our curiosity, not our condemnation
The most important thing is to talk with your kids about alcohol use (start before they are teenagers if you can) and to be relaxed and open about their questions and opinions. This article contains these excellent conversation starters:
- Why do you think it’s illegal for kids and teens to drink alcohol?
- What would you do if you were in a car and the driver had been drinking?
- What about if the driver was a grown-up, like the parent of a friend?
- Do you know any adults who drink too much? What do you think of them?
- Have you ever thought that I drank too much? Acted differently when I drank alcohol?
- Do you know any kids who have tried alcohol or drugs? Do you think that’s a problem?
- Why do you think kids try alcohol?
- When do you think kids are ready to try alcohol?
Being a teenager is really tough. It’s scary to stand up to your friends when your growing independence is prompting you to look for acceptance and approval outside of your family. There are times when we ALL feel desperate to be liked and included. Parents – take a look at yourself and your own behaviours and rationalizations. Stay kind and curious with your teens; that’s where your power to guide them lies.
There is a lot of area we could cover with this one topic. Consider this a short introduction. I have worked with hundreds of teenagers over the years (as a youth worker and a youth addictions counsellor) and had dozens of experiences helping them think about and manage underage drinking. And that’s not even counting the many times my son and I confronted this issue! I welcome your questions and sharing in the comments below.