In late 2019, shortly before COVID-19 began to do its damage, I was in a coastal NSW high school talking to students in Grades 9 and 10 about the latest alcohol statistics. Those stats tell a very good news story. Kids today drink less than ever before.
My audience of teenagers laughed. They mocked. They didn’t believe it.
Different cohorts, different locations and different kids see different things. If it doesn’t ring true to them, they say that whoever filled in the survey was lying. And from their experience, these surveys, regardless of their esteemed reputations, are untrue. “Kids are just being sneakier”, they assured me.
Experience trumps empiricism for teens
My role was to talk to them about the psychology behind their decision-making. We were supposed to talk about risks and rewards, the impact of friends, how teens’ decision-making is affected by the time of day, where they are, and who they’re with.
At one point, a student put up his hand. He was definitely one of the cool kids. This was obvious by his confident manner, his head nods to his drinking buddies when they cheered his statement, and the way most of the students deferred to him as the local legend of the grade:
“You can’t really tell us that drinking is dangerous tho’, ‘cos we’re down the beach every Friday night getting smashed and it hasn’t done any harm to any of us.”
Experience trumps empirical research in the minds of our teens – and some adults. There’s some social psychology and some neuropsychology that explains what happened in that moment for that boy and his peers. It can be summed up briefly as follows:
Our teens are attracted to potential rewards (applause from peers, the effects of alcohol) well beyond the risks their behaviour brings, and this is exacerbated by the presence of their peers.
While there will always be room for improvement, the latest statistics about our teenagers’ alcohol consumption are generally telling us a good news story. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, alcohol consumption among young people has consistently dropped since 2007.
This is good. Really good. And not because I’m a wowser who doesn’t want kids to have some fun. In fact, quite the opposite. I want our children to have a terrific time. I just happen to believe – and research confirms – that our children will have more fun if they’re sober, safe, and can remember what they were doing and who they were with while they were doing it! Alcohol is a drug. And it’s not a safe one, particularly for young people.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advise that for anyone aged under 18, not drinking alcohol is the safest option, with those under 15 at the greatest risk of harm. That’s because drinking alcohol in adolescence can be harmful to our children’s physical and psychosocial development.
Drinking is down
Results from the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) showed that our teens are increasingly following this advice, with the age at which people first tried alcohol rising over time. Specifically:
- the average age at which young people aged 14–24 first tried alcohol has steadily risen from 14.7 years in 2001 to 16.2 in 2019. Kids aren’t getting into the grog until they’re well into Grade 10 or 11.
- the average age of first drinking was similar for males and females aged 14–24, and increased from 16.0 in 2016 to 16.3 in 2019 for females.
- there has also been a long-term increase in the proportion of young people who abstain from alcohol. From 2007 to 2019, the proportion of people aged 14–17 who abstained increased from 39 per cent to 73 per cent.
That third point is remarkable. When I was a mid-late teen (early 90s) it was only around 25 per cent of adolescents who abstained. Today we’re looking at the best part of three-quarters of our teens who are staying off the drink. (While this article is not about tobacco and other drugs, it is worth acknowledging that the same trend seems to be apparent across the board.)
How do parents help?
Regardless of what the stats show, if my child is in that 25-per-cent of teens who want to get plastered on the weekend, I need to know how to talk to her. If her experience is like that of the boy in my school session, what can I say to get through to her? How do I keep her safe?
Setting boundaries with our kids can be tough. And boundaries related to alcohol consumption can be some of the most challenging of all. How do you set rules and boundaries about alcohol with your kids?
Here are 7 tips for talking about alcohol with your kids:
Connect before you correct
It is tempting to “turn on the fire hose” and give them all you’ve got. This approach usually creates resentment, boredom, and ruptured relationships. Teens hate being lectured or told what to do.
It is impossible for us to have any influence over our children and their decisions when our relationship is consumed with correction and direction. It simply creates contention and the kids shut us out.
Connection is the currency of our relationships with our teens. When we keep them close through regular connection, we draw them toward us. They listen to us and are open to our influence. Connect before you correct.
Explore their experience and perspective
Some of our teens (about ¾) don’t want to be drinking. Others feel drawn to alcohol and feel they need it to prove something – or just to try it (or be like the cool kids). Some already know it’s dangerous. Others don’t care.
Let your teen know you want to have one of those big-topic talks. Go somewhere quiet and away from home. Treat yourselves to a milkshake. And then ask them questions:
- “What is the general feeling about alcohol in your grade?”
- “What do your friends think about it?”
- “Do you ever come into contact with people who are consuming it?”
- “How do you feel about it?”
When they respond in a carefree, glib way, it can be tempting to be upset. Stay away from judgment and get curious, not furious. Ask them why they feel the way they do. Invite them to go a little deeper. You might say, “I’m surprised to hear that. So you seem to think that getting drunk is risk-free and a whole lot of fun?”
Get a strong sense of their attitude to alcohol. This can set the stage for what you share and how you share it.
Focus on facts, not feelings
At some point you’ll need to talk to your child about your position on their potential alcohol consumption. Before you dive in with all of your knowledge, emphasise empathy.
“It seems like they’re having a great time when they’re drunk huh. And it probably feels like I’m this old grouchy wowser stopping you from having all that fun.” Then add, “Let’s just run through a few facts, and we’ll work out the best way forward together.” It’s best to avoid talking about how you feel about things at this point, and instead focus on what you know about alcohol.
If they tell you that nothing bad ever happens when people drink, it’s pointless arguing. Their experience will override your feelings. But if you can explain what you know about how alcohol impacts adolescent brain development, how alcohol inhibits judgment and decision-making processes, or how alcohol increases risk of physical or sexual assault, they will listen. Facts can cut through feelings in the right setting.
Talk with your kids about how you are ‘getting’ your head around the research too. Tell them about how your discoveries have made you want to make change. Knowing the law in your state in regard to alcohol and under-18s may be helpful too. The more you know about alcohol, the more you can guide your teens effectively. Just google “alcohol and adolescence”. You’ll find a mountain of information.
Ask them to explain your fears
To stop the conversation being a one-way lecture, ask your teen to tell you what they think you are worried about when it comes to alcohol. Have them describe what they’d say if they were in your seat. Some concerns most parents share is:
- What if you’re hurt, or what if you hurt someone?
- What if you get pregnant, or what if you get someone pregnant?
- What if you’re sexually assaulted, or what if you sexually assault someone?
- What if you get behind the wheel of a car, or get into a car with someone who is drunk?
- What if you’re sober but someone near you is drunk and you get hurt?
- And the big one – what if you ruin your life?
It’s hard to do this, but – acknowledge that you know the worst-case scenario is unlikely. Tell them you trust them and their friends. You just worry.
Set boundaries together
Yes, I know that this sounds idealistic. How many of us can really sit down with our teens and have a “limit-setting” conversation? Every family works differently, and teen temperaments can clash with parent personalities, but if you’ve gone through the steps outlined above, this is the natural way forward.
Try a script like this:
“Well, you know how I’m worried. And I get where you’re coming from. So how do we move forward? What can we do to keep you safe and help me feel OK about things?”
Force creates resistance. Remember, if you come down too hard, you’ll push them away from you and straight into the thing you want them to avoid – in this case, alcohol. And if you’re too relaxed, they’ll see that as your endorsement of their behaviour, which can lead to binge-drinking and other risky experimentation.
Be an example
Our kids follow our example. They’ve done it since they were babies, and they’ll continue doing it into adulthood.
Don’t give them grog
Studies are consistently showing that when parents give their teens alcohol – for a party, or even at the table during a family dinner – their adolescents see it as a parental endorsement for alcohol consumption. Those teens are then more likely to consume more alcohol and do so more regularly.
You’re not helping them by having them do it at home where you can “help them be responsible drinkers”. Don’t give them alcohol until they’re 18 – and even then, only if they want it and you’re OK with it. (Personally, we don’t have it in the house. Full stop.)
I’m adding a bonus tip:
It’s vital that we stay attuned to what is going on in our children’s lives. Ask your teens where they’re going and who with. Find out what they’ll be doing. Offer to drive them there and pick them up. Get to know the parents of the other kids.
The research on the importance of parental involvement and monitoring is clear: when you stay involved and show you’re monitoring things, your teens will be more likely to stick with your expectations.
Our involvement with our teenagers needs to be maintained the right way though – and this is where we come full circle. The quality of our relationship matters. Kids do best when they have parents who are strict and firm in their expectations, but who are also warm and understanding.
There is an abundance of evidence to support the argument that delaying our kids’ consumption of alcohol for as long as possible is best for them. And research shows that the majority of Australian parents are working at doing just that. By maintaining high expectations, setting a wise example, and keeping our relationship strong, it is more likely that our children will delay their alcohol experiences longer, and drink less when they do drink.
Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.
About the author: A sought-after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.