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Why don’t some parents have the ‘alcohol talk’ with their teen?

No parent wants to get a phone call from a nurse or a police officer late on a Saturday night informing them that their child has drunk too much and is now in hospital. Over the years I’ve been contacted by many parents who have received that call and when it happens, it is terrifying and devastating.

Jim and Sophie are the parents of Jez, who at the time of this incident was 14. They had recently moved from interstate and were happy that their son seemed to be fitting in at his new school. He was small for his age and a little immature but the friends he’d made seemed nice so when he asked if he could sleepover at a mate’s house on a Saturday night, they had said ‘yes’ almost immediately. There had been times when they’d discussed possibly having the ‘alcohol talk’ with their son but Jim felt it could put ideas into his head and they agreed to leave it until he was actually invited to a party and more likely to be exposed to the issue.
When they got the call to say that Jez was in hospital after being found unconscious in a shopping centre car park they were stunned. They later discovered that their son had been drinking since that very first sleepover. He’d been attending parties or drinking in public places for almost six months and they had absolutely no idea!

I recently met Jim and Sophie at a parent session and, sadly, they were still struggling with how to deal with their son’s alcohol use. Now 16, Jez continues to drink to excess regularly. He’s been brought home by police a number of times and is now refusing to go to school. They tried to put rules and boundaries into place after his hospitalisation but that only seemed to create more problems. They have since paid thousands of dollars on psychologists, psychiatrists and other health professionals to try to help them with his behaviour but have had little success.

It’s highly unlikely that simply having the ‘alcohol talk’ with Jez before he started drinking would have prevented what was to follow. There are likely to be many reasons why the young man is acting out in this way and drinking to excess. Nevertheless, what is so sad is that Jim and Sophie actually made a conscious decision not to talk to their son about alcohol. They believed he was a non-drinker, he wasn’t exposed to teen drinking and, in Jim’s words “it would put ideas into his head”.

Sadly, many parents make the same mistake and wait until something goes wrong to start that important conversation. I’ve said it many times and I’ll continue to shout it from the roof tops, I believe that it’s never too early to start talking to your child about alcohol and other drugs.

Children pick up messages about alcohol from a very early age. absorbing everything they see around them, whether it be from movies and TV, or simply observing their parents’ behaviour. Studies have found that at between the ages of three to six, the majority of children are able to identify alcoholic beverages from pictures, as well as indicate who is normally drinking what beverage under what circumstances. It should be no surprise, therefore, that by the time they reach their early teens they’ve well and truly established many of their attitudes and values in this area. Taking the time, from an early age, to begin an ongoing discussion with them about the issue is vital.

Why then do some parents make the decision not to have the ‘alcohol talk’? Recent research (Napper et al, 2023) identified five core reasons for this behaviour and they were as follows:

  • they lack the skills or resources to communicate
  • they believe their child is a non-drinker
  • they believe their child is an independent, trustworthy decision maker
  • they can teach their child how to drink through modelling
  • they believe communication is futile

None of these are particularly surprising. There are no step-by-step guidelines of how to talk to your child about any of the more complex issues they will face as they become young adults and there’s certainly no ‘right or wrong’ way to do this. Every family is different and each one of your children is different. Also, at a certain point, parents will want to try to balance trusting their teen to start making their own responsible choices around alcohol, while at the same time provide guidance around keeping themselves as safe as possible. That’s not easy. It’s not surprising then that this recent research found that the most common reason for not discussing this issue was that parents believed their child could and should make their own alcohol decisions.

But all of these reasons are more likely to apply when a child is at an age when they’re exposed to their peers’ alcohol use or they’re drinking themselves. It’s important that these discussions start much earlier than that – as I always say to parents, if you haven’t had the ‘alcohol talk’ and set some rules and boundaries in that area by Year 7, you’ve waited too long!

This is not about having a formal sit-down discussion with your 12-year-old and hitting them with your thoughts on ‘all things alcohol’. You don’t need to cover everything at once. This should be a gradual process, starting early and developing over time. Start by discussing your family views and expectations in this area and begin to provide age-appropriate information that matches their experiences and needs.

Here are some questions that can be used to start a discussion and be the first part of an ongoing conversation:

  • Why do you think young people drink alcohol?
  • Why do adults drink?
  • Do you and your friends talk about alcohol?
  • What do you think about young people of your age drinking?
  • What would you say if someone offered you alcohol?
  • What have you learnt about alcohol at school?

Research shows that, as a parent, you’re one of the most important social influencers in keeping your child safer when it comes to alcohol. Keeping connected and maintaining lines of communication through adolescence can be challenging but building a strong foundation nice and early can make all the difference. Talking about the alcohol issue and believing that you do have the power to make a difference in this area is vital.

Napper, L.E., Trager, B.M., LaBrie, J.W., & Turrisi, R. (2023). “Let’s not talk about it”: parents’ reasons for not discussing alcohol use with emerging adult children. Journal of Adolescent Health. S1054-139X(23)00172-6. doi: 10.1016.

Published: July 2023

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