How to Raise a Responsible Drinker
Teaching your kids how to enjoy alcohol safely should begin long before they’re invited to their first frat party. Here’s how to start those potentially lifesaving conversations with kids at every age.
“I’m not really listening,” says Zeke, grinning at me while I try to impart yet another surprising stat I’ve discovered about teens and alcohol. These days my 17-year-old has been hearing a lot on the topic of drinking as we tour college campuses and he strides more confidently away from us at each one.
The thing is, he’s a great kid. Unless I’m deluding myself, I don’t think he drinks now—at least not much. But who really knows? And his looming birthday (not to mention memories of my own boozy college years) has let loose lurking fears about his safety. Every college brochure that hits our mailbox hits me like a Mack truck. Where he sees bucolic pictures of the grassy quad, I see a world of bingeing and beer bongs.
Because no matter how thoughtful teenagers might be, they are still heading off to college with an underdeveloped brain and an overdeveloped desire to court danger. With frontal lobes that won’t be fully grown until around age 30, they’re simply less able to make smart decisions in the moment, says France Jensen, MD, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s no wonder my brain is in overdrive too.
Though most parents don’t start addressing alcohol until their kids are teens, experts say we should be talking about it long before. From an early age, kids are paying attention—to everything.
Most important, they witness our behavior. But they’re also bombarded by Super Bowl ads and “wine o’clock” memes on social media. “There’s a belief that if we’d just relax about alcohol, people wouldn’t drink so much, but that’s not the case,” says Aaron White, PhD, scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Kids who start drinking by 13 or 14 are at the highest risk of developing an alcohol disorder as adults.
Experts say that if you begin to address the topic of alcohol before your kids get curious, you can have a much bigger impact than you might expect: A 2016 GfK Roper Youth Report shows that parents are by far the leading influence on a teen’s decision to drink or not drink. “Parents should have dozens to hundreds of conversations about alcohol with their kids,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, author of Get the Behavior You Want...Without Being the Parent You Hate. “Forget the big sit-down. Small, repetitive talks can change landscapes.” Here’s what to say.