Alcohol abuse and excessive consumption has been declared a national health problem by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The issue has been identified because excessive alcohol consumption costs 88,000 lives in the U.S each year. Worryingly, high-school students make up 20 percent of people who report binge-drinking. What does this mean for the ways which you talk to your kids about alcohol? On a policy level, it means a need for better data and a shift in how local governments respond — but what about on an individual level? Taking what we know about alcohol consumption, what can parents do make sure their kids don’t get caught up?

There are a few practical solutions you can try at home to help your child make healthy decisions about alcohol. A lot of my information is based on this infographic produced by the University of Illinois-Chicago’s College of Applied Health Sciences, that summarizes CDC findings.

What do we know about teens’ unhealthy drinking?

  • 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is done during “binge drinking” (around five drinks per occasion), which carries a high risk of immediate, serious physical injury.
  • In a 2013 survey, 21 percent of high school children reported engaging in binge drinking.
  • Underage drinkers are the third largest group of binge drinkers.

Binge drinking tends to occur in unsupervised peer groups — parties, trips, and other social occasions. All of the traditional risks of alcohol use come burdened with another issue: secrecy.

Helping Your Teen Navigate an Alcohol-Filled World Safely

No matter what your personal beliefs about drinking are, it might be impossible to completely remove alcohol from the lives of your kids. Depictions of alcohol are everywhere. So the question becomes: how do you teach them to contextualize what they see, to be safe? You already know that building the integrity and self-assurance to know when to say no is the work of years, not ad campaigns. There might be difficult, complex conversations ahead, but they’re worth  having.

Communicate your policy

Some people find that a “no drinking at all” policy works for them, while others decide to introduce their kids to alcohol in a safe environment in their own home. I’m not going to make a judgement about which policy is best, but I want to make clear that either way, the conversation needs to go deeper than “yes” or “no.” Both require a sense of hard boundaries and respect that comes with in-depth communication.

As they get older, kids become more sensitive to, and critical of, the “because I say so” rule. With an important issue like alcohol, it’s important to engage with your kids in a way that doesn’t encourage rebellious behavior. It’s time to set parental authority aside and explain your reasoning for which alcohol policy you choose, clearly define the limits and establish that your rules are out of concern for health and safety.

Accept that they might find themselves in a compromising situation and guide them through it

No matter what your beliefs are about alcohol consumption, it’s important to arm your kids with knowledge. If your policy is a hardline “no alcohol ever,” it’s even more important to make sure they’re armed with the knowledge to resist temptation and peer pressure. The best, most trustworthy kids are still likely to find themselves in a situation where drinking is happening. The problem with peer pressure is that it’s not always overt. Anyone who’s been a designated driver or sober at a party knows that it doesn’t take people telling you to drink to feel like the odd one out.

Sometimes, that first drink doesn’t come willingly. I was at a party once, and someone offered me a drink out of a 2-liter of cola. They had emptied it halfway and filled it back up with whiskey. I wasn’t disallowed from drinking, but I wasn’t in the mood, and so felt quite betrayed. “Jokes” like that happen often, and all it takes is a momentary lapse in judgement or misplaced trust to fall into the trap. In a situation like that, fear and shame at accidentally breaking the rules can become a factor.

So, take the role of the sage with advice that they’ll appreciate is meant to protect them: Never accept an open drink from someone, even if you know them. If you really, really feel the pressure to drink, take a heavily frosted or colored bottle and excuse yourself to the bathroom. Dump it, fill it with water, and nurse it all night. Never take your eyes off your drink or let someone else take it.

Give them a way out

The other important part of accepting that no kid is immune to finding themselves in compromising situations is to let them know they have an escape route.

The famous “X-plan” has been circulating online, and I’m in love with it. Put simply, it’s an agreement between you and your kids on a pass phrase. If you ever receive the pass phrase, it means they feel unsafe, and you agree to immediately go and collect them. The most important part of the agreement is that it’s no questions asked. The Dad who coined the x-plan is much better at explaining the nuances that come with this bond of trust than I, so I encourage you to check out the full post.

The way out in question doesn’t have to look exactly like the “X-plan” but it should empower your kids to have a solid foundation from which to say “no” or “I need to leave.”

Keep an open dialogue

Never let a teachable moment about personal responsibility pass you by. I find that questions are a fantastic educational tool. Ask them to draw their own conclusions about how they might have handled a situation in a better way. Ask them about the behavior of their friends and peers. Encourage a self-reflective attitude.

Think about the examples you set. Do you drink around your kids at home? Are you or your kids consuming media that glorifies drinking culture? How do you contextualize your own alcohol consumption, and media that encourages drinking culture?

If your teen finds themselves in a situation that you need to rescue them from, even with the no-questions-asked policy, you can approach the issue. Probably best to wait until the next morning, but make use of gently leading questions and ask them to tell you about their mistakes and areas with room for improvement.

Balance shame with support

Shame and guilt are natural emotions and healthy in small doses, but too much can amplify poor behavior. If your teen drinks against your wishes, it can be difficult to know how to approach the right amount of discipline. Luckily, drinking often comes with its own punishments, and you can leverage the hangover as a learning experience.

The right amount of pity can go a long way to getting your message through loud and clear. Perhaps hold off on conversations about consequences until later in the day. Take the morning to reiterate some basic health lessons, and let them know that they can’t skip out on responsibilities like school no matter how they feel. Then, when they get home that afternoon, you can go over whatever other consequences you have in store for them.

In your conversations, make your disappointment clear but try not to cloud the potential learning experience with a lot of anger. Kids have a great talent for “switching off” if they feel a lecture incoming, and conversations like this are too important to go in one ear and out the other.

The best tools for prevention are knowledge and support. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive with any parenting policies. Most kids are good kids, and most of them will know and appreciate when you’re taking an educational angle on the rules and policies of the household.

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Author: Ben Steele

Ben Steele is a professional writer, nonprofit administrator and theatre artist who was born in England, grew up in Canada and then moved to sunny — very sunny — Idaho. Forgive his occasional slip of recalcitrant ‘u’s after ‘o’s and back to front ‘re’ spellings.