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How to talk about alcohol

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Research has shown that kids who have conversations with their parents and learn a lot about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are up to 50% less likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who don’t have such conversations.1

Starting the conversation

Start young

Younger children can be more likely to ask questions and more open to hearing what their parents have to say than teens. They are more likely to adopt parents’ values as their own and less likely to want to rebel, as a way to prove they are their own person. It’s also easier to talk to a child before the pressure to drink has started. Having said that, it’s never too late to start the conversation.

Pick the right moment

With a younger child, the right moment can often be when they ask a question about alcohol or drinking.

Teens may think they ‘know it all’, so you may need to wait for an opportunity to talk about alcohol. For example, if you are watching a movie or TV show that features drinking, drunkenness or alcohol dependence, you could comment on the storyline and ask what they think about it.

A first party or disco can also be an opportunity to highlight some of the risks and ways to stay safe. See some tips on dealing with social events like discos and parties.

What should I tell my child about alcohol?  

It’s helpful for teens to know about:

Tips for talking to a teen

Understand why teens drink

If your teen is drinking or wants to drink, it can help to understand why. Good communication comes from understanding the other person’s point of view.

We have some information on some of the reasons why teens drink. Our mental health section has information on the ways people use alcohol to cope, get over social anxiety or lift their mood.

Ask your teen their views and listen to their reasons for drinking or wanting to – chances are they are similar to your own.

Listen before you talk

A good way to have an effective discussion with your teen is to really try and understand their point of view. This means above all listening to your child.

Even if it is a ‘teachable moment’, where you could pass on information and advice, sometimes it’s best to wait until another time to say what you want to say. The main thing is to hear what they are saying, without interrupting, criticising or passing judgement.

Use active listening

Active listening helps your child to open up and shows them that you understand their point of view. Learn how to listen actively.

Make it casual

You don’t have to sit down and have a big discussion about the dangers of alcohol. You can help to give your child a responsible attitude by dropping facts about alcohol into the conversation.

It can also help to emphasise the risks and give a different viewpoint when people talk about how great drinking is or how funny it was when someone got drunk.

Talk about ‘other people’

Children may close up if you ask them questions about their own behaviour. Talk about other people – ask if their friends drink, if their friends get into difficulties when they drink, how they get hold of drink, or ask what rules their friends’ parents have about drinking.

You could also talk about media stories – for example, a news article where someone has been hurt after drinking, a celebrity’s drunken behaviour or a TV storyline about alcohol dependence or teen drinking.

Make them the smart one

Discuss ways your teen can keep their friends safe. Make them the ‘clued-in’, smart one. It can make a teen feel valued and behave well if they know you trust them to do the right thing.

Tell them about the risks and give them tips to help. For example:

  • “Do you know what to do if one of your friends drinks too much? I didn’t realise but apparently it can be really dangerous to let them sleep it off.”
  • “Keep an eye on your friends at the party if they’re drinking – alcohol can really shut down your judgement – make sure they don’t do anything they’ll regret.”
  • “If you see one of your friends getting out of control, try and make sure they don’t drink any more alcohol and give them a soft drink – otherwise they might go unconscious.”
  • “Don’t let your friends take any risks or go off on their own when they’re drunk – I heard about some lads who went swimming after drinking and one of them drowned.”

Help them to understand about alcohol poisoning and what to do. Encourage them to call you or get medical help if they are worried about someone, and reassure them that they won’t get into trouble.

Point out the risks

Often children get their information and values about alcohol from friends and the media. These tend to gloss over the negative side and the harms alcohol can do and just focus on the fun.

Draw their attention to news stories that show the harm alcohol can cause, point out times where alcohol spoils someone’s fun or gets them into trouble.

Explain the evidence about the harmful effects of alcohol on the body, particularly the effects on the developing brain.

Be realistic about the dangers

It’s important that children know the risks linked to alcohol. At the same time, if you over-exaggerate the risks, your child may dismiss what you are saying.

Many young people drink and get drunk without suffering any serious harm, and most people go through the teenage drinking phase without experiencing serious problems. It’s good to acknowledge this, as well as pointing the very real and sometimes tragic consequences of drinking.

Try to explain your need to make sure they are protected from possible harm.

Prepare them for peer pressure

Ask them how they feel about drinking and if they feel pressured to drink. Warn them to respect their friends who decide not to drink and not to let their friends tease people who don’t drink or try to pressurise them into drinking.

Let them know that they can say no – and give them reasons:

  • “I can’t go home drunk, my parents would kill me.”
  • “I have to get up early tomorrow for training.”
  • “I’m going shopping with my mum first thing. I can’t have a hangover.”
  • “I’m on antibiotics.”

Reassure them that it’s sometimes better to avoid a situation where things might get out of control because of alcohol.

Learn from their experiences

Talk to your child about how their night went when they have been out. If they found something challenging, discuss how they may be able to handle it in the future.

Be open about family members who may have a drinking problem

Be honest about the effects another person’s harmful drinking has on the person drinking and the family. Learn how your child feels and explain that drinking is not a good way to cope with any difficult feelings they may be having, especially as they may be more at risk of becoming dependent on alcohol if there is a history of this in the family.  

Read more

Worried about your child? Warning signs and ways to help

If your child is drinking

1 Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 2012. 

References
https://www.ncadd.org/family-friends/there-is-help/talking-with-children
https://www.ncadd.org/family-friends/there-is-help/ten-tips-for-prevention-for-parents
Brian Wall. Sharing experiences and suggestions around alcohol and substance abuse. A guide for parents. 4th Edition, 2017
(2013) NYCI. Support manual for dealing with substance use issues in an out of school setting. National Youth Council of Ireland, Dublin
http://www.publichealthagency.org/sites/default/files/you%20your%20child%20and%20alcohol%20leaflet.pdf
https://www.healthpromotion.ie/hp-files/docs/HPM00402.pdf
http://alcoholthinkagain.com.au/Parents-Young-People/Alcohol-and-Young-People

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