Lots of teenagers will experiment with drinking alcohol before they are old enough. Here are some tips for talking to a young person about their drinking.
Adolesence: a time of experimentation and change
It's true that drinking alcohol isn't great for us, especially when we are young. It's also true that underage drinking is illegal, and can have consequences for young people. However, adolesence is a powerful growth stage in a person's life, where complex body and brain changes take place. A young person is experiencing huge physical and mental changes, and deciding who they are, who they want to be, what they value and what has meaning for them. This is a process that takes some time, and it's inevitable that experimenting with dangerous behaviours such as drinking alcohol can happen.
Teenage brains haven't developed enough to fully understand risk
Adolesence is a rough time for young people. Some of the biggest and most powerful changes that happen in the brain during puberty are directly related to decision making, planning, calculating risk, impulse control, critical thinking and vulnerability to influence and boredom. Basically, teenagers brains haven't quite developed enough to always make sensible, calculated decisions that avoid danger! That doesn't mean a young person doesn't ever make good decisions, it just means that they are using a process of experimentation and elimination to decide how they'd like to think and behave in adulthood, and sometimes the results are sketchy!
Talking about alcohol with a teenager
It's vital that parents and carers help young people understand the risks of drinking alcohol, but in a way that is supportive and non-judgemental. Before you start the discussion, be clear about what you want to communicate so the interaction goes as smoothly as possible. Have information from a reputable source, such as an addictions counsellor, to ensure it's correct and up to date. This will also help you answer any questions or bust any myths that might come up during conversation.
1. ABC - Always Be Connecting
You know that old sales cliche, "ABC - Always Be Closing"? This is similar - Always Be Connecting. If a young person feels connected to you, they will be able to trust you with big, important stuff and feel more comfortable to honestly discuss what's going on with them. Connecting behaviours are things like noticing their mood ("You seem a bit flat today, is everything okay?") or asking about things that are important to them ("How was soccer practice?").
Sometimes when parents or carers get worried about behaviours like drinking alcohol, they can say or do things that accidentally disconnect or distance the young person. This is totally normal when we care about someone and are worried, but it can make the situation more difficult. Before you do or say anything, ask yourself "Does this serve to connect or disconnect me from this young person?"
2. Avoid panic or hysteria
In fact, when you're talking to a teenager, try and avoid big emotions all together. That doesn't mean you're not allowed to feel big emotions - that's impossible! But do your best to talk to a young person when your own big feelings have settled. Not much good communication can happen when both parties are feeling angry, frustrated, fearful or annoyed.
3. Avoid lecturing or nagging
Ask yourself this - does lecturing and nagging work? It can't possibly work, because otherwise you wouldn't need to lecture or nag...right? You'd ask or say something once, it would be understood and actioned, and life would move on. If only it worked that way, huh?!
The truth is, lecturing and nagging doesn't work with anyone, especially not teenagers. If you find yourself doing either of these things, stop and say something like "I can feel myself lecturing you. I think it's because I'm so worried about you. Why don't we come back to this another time?" It's a great way of giving yourself a break to regroup, as well as modelling respect and emotional regulation to the young person.
4. Limit your conversation time to 7 minutes
Our bodies and minds can't handle much more than 15 minutes of intense discussion before we start to get overwhelmed. Teenage brains and bodies can only do about half of that - it's just too intense for a young person who may already be feeling agitated, frustrated, ashamed, angry or annoyed. So keep that in mind when you're talking to a young person about drinking alcohol - keep it short, precise and to the point. If you find yourself talking for longer than that, come back to the conversation another time.
5. Talk to a counsellor
Being a parent is difficult at times, and knowing how to help a young person with something as serious as drinking alcohol can be tough. Talking to a specialist addictions counsellor can help you get clear on what's useful and what's not, how to have effective conversations with the young person, and where to seek further help if their drinking or behaviour becomes problematic for them or the rest of the family.
If you would like to discuss alcohol, drugs or other potentially harmful behaviours in relation to a teenager, click here to contact me.
Until next time,
The content of this blog is based on our counsellors' academic and clinical experience, but does not constitute therapeutic advice. This blog is intended as general information about counselling, psychotherapy, addictions and mental health issues only. For specific treatment related to you or someone you know, please contact us here to discuss your needs.