How to Prevent Teen Drinking: A Long‑Game Guide for Parents
Virtually every article you’ll ever read about underage drinking harps on risk factors – in other words, the things that have gone wrong to set teens on such a reckless path. But rather than wait and watch helplessly for things to go wrong and the signs of teenage drinking to emerge, let’s think about prevention: What are the things parents can do right that are proven to influence less teen drinking?
How to prevent teen drinking: A long-game guide for parents
Set appropriate boundaries and enforce them
Parenting that sets and enforces clear expectations and limits by praising teens’ good behaviour and providing healthy and thoughtful discipline for bad or risky behaviour has been repeatedly linked to basically all of the outcomes you want for you kid: lower chance of teenage drinking, yes, but also better body image and better grades.
This kind of parenting starts early; you can’t suddenly, after 12 years of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, ride into town on your kid’s 13th birthday, rules blazing. There has to be a habit of rule-making, explanation and enforcement in order to have a hope at preventing teenage drinking.
When it comes to alcohol, parents needs to weigh the values and priorities that are important for their unique social, legal, and familial contexts in order to arrive at the limitations they set for their teens. But research points to two major actions parents can take to prevent teen drinking.
You probably shouldn’t encourage experimentation with alcohol at home.
Studies have shown that when parents allow preteens or teens to drink in the home (and/or provide them with alcohol) kids drink more heavily outside the home. This cuts against the popular belief that exposing kids to alcohol at home, where you can ‘keep an eye on them,’ will reduce risky behavior outside the home.
There is a caveat to this: Rarity and context. Allowing your teen a sip or small serving of alcohol in a special context – for example, a half-glass of wine during a special family function – can be a factor that curbs the chances of them drinking to excess elsewhere.
You should drink moderately (or less) and responsibly in front of your kids.
There’s an overwhelming body of research that identifies parents’ own behaviour as the biggest influencer of teen behaviour.
Read more about why teens are reckless on The Swaddle.
Beyond this, each family will have its own, more specific rules. But research suggests that what, exactly, these rules limit is less important than the fact that there are limits, the child understands them and the consequences of breaking them, and the consequences are enforced if and when the child does.
Communicate openly and be involved in kids’ lives
Research shows that teens who are aware their parents would be upset if they drank are less likely to consume alcohol. At the same time, it’s just as important for parents to ask about and understand teens’ opinions and concerns about drinking. An openness to conversation about a topic does not indicate that limits are flexible; rather, that openness can be used to reinforce those limits by discussing scenarios and giving your teen strategies to respond in the way you would want them to respond.
Finally, research shows as many as 80% of teens think parents should have a say in whether they drink. (And the 20% that don’t were four times more likely to drink alcohol.) So, don’t look at this as a wasted effort; teens want your guidance and limits. They also want to be consulted and heard. Doing both is the closest you’ll ever get to ensuring your teen stays safe when it comes to consuming alcohol.