Teen Drinking: Limits vs. Punishment
According to the National Institute of Health, drinking — the drug of choice among youth — plays a major role in death from injuries, and injuries are the leading cause of death for kids under 21. Alcohol also significantly increases the likelihood of risky sexual behavior, including unprotected sex, multiple partners, and physical and sexual assault (NIAA, 2007).
How do we set limits on our teenagers so that the limits are actually protective and not just a reaction to anger? It’s easy to take teens’ provocative behavior personally and react with punitive measures, anger, panic, shaming, lecture, or blame. When such feelings are the driving force behind parents’ responses, communication breaks down and measures to control teenagers’ behavior backfire.
Similar to their kids, at these times parents are reacting reflexively instead of thoughtfully – losing sight of their child. These reactions, instead of fostering communication inadvertently pull teens deeper into a control struggle, leaving them with nowhere to turn. Following punishment, force, or admonishment, it’s prudent to think about what “lesson” was actually learned. Though teens can be forced to outwardly comply, they inevitably find a way to “win” these battles. For example through secret rebellion or, more tragically, by hurting themselves, directly or indirectly, until it is clear to them that parents “get” the message.
Intent and motive (easily sensed by teens) are what differentiate consequences and limits [protective] from punishment and control [reactive]. Honest self-reflection — including noticing one’s tone, feelings and demeanor will help parents be onto themselves as well as their kids. Some teens want limits imposed by parents so they can restrict themselves and still save face. But limits should be informed by understanding the teen’s particular unspoken needs and vulnerabilities — and tempered by a calm tone, uncritical language, and positive message.
Helpful Hints About Talking to Your Teens About Drinking
- Be proactive. Don’t attempt to set limits or talk to your teen when either of you is angry.
- If you’re in a struggle with your teen leading up to any important conversation about protecting them, consider attempting repair by owning up to your part. Set an example of taking responsibility in this way.
- When talking to teens consider what your goal is — and hold that in mind. Stay calm. Once the alliance is ruptured, it’s difficult to have the impact needed to protect.
- Decide beforehand on your approach, and consider what effect, knowing your teenager, your approach is likely to have. Consider modifying it if necessary. Ask questions in a curious, not leading or accusatory way. It’s more important to listen and understand than to talk.
- Be informed. Ask your teens their views on alcohol and find out how educated they are.
- Be respectful and avoid being paternalistic. Your teen knows more about things going on in their life than you do. Trust they will make mature decisions with your guidance.
- Explain in a forthright way what you are worried about and why.
- Find out whether your teen is worried, what they want of themselves for that night, and where the risks lie for them. This can guide the limits you ultimately set. Think through together what situations present risk and ways to manage them.
- Make rules, consequences and expectations clear and consistent and not punitively based. Explain in a direct and nonjudgmental way why you are enforcing them. Assume they are doing the best they can, rather than seeing them as bad.
- Stay informed about the details of where your teen will be, who will be transporting them, and what adults will be present.
- Be aware of your power as a role model. Teens unconsciously internalize values about alcohol, and managing frustration and anger from observing your behavior, not what you tell them to do.
Remember, you can talk to your teenager about these issues in a calm and rational manner. Getting emotional about your concerns is likely going to overshadow your message, making it less likely to obtain behavior change from your teen.
National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, National Institute of Health. (2017). Alcohol alert: Underage drinking Fact Sheet (NIH Publication No. 67). Bethesda, MD.