QUESTION: Recently, a neighbor told me she saw my 15-year-old son and his friend drinking beer. I’m furious with my son, but I’m not at all sure what to say to him. I know he’ll be very upset that the neighbor was such a snitch. How should I handle this?
ANSWER: You are fortunate your neighbor cared enough to tell you about what she saw. And, although he may not realize it yet, your son is fortunate he has adults looking out for his well-being. Despite the fact that teen drinking is illegal, most teenagers report that they experiment with alcohol. But how parents handle it can make a big difference in years to come. You can help him develop the tools that can get him safely through this challenging stage of life. Here are a few suggestions for how to use this situation as a teachable moment for your son:
– Without overreacting, tell your son what you learned from the neighbor. Let him know you are glad the neighbor cared enough to tell you.
– Encourage your son to talk with you about where he got the beer, why he chose to drink, and how he felt about it. If you can listen to his story without flying off the handle, you are laying the foundation for the important steps that follow.
– Let your son know you understand the forces that encourage young people to drink: peer pressure, advertising, and the expectation that, at least in the short run, it will feel good. Brainstorm with your son – or even role-play – if he’s willing – about how to resist that pressure and still be “cool,” which is important to teens.
– Then tell him simply, clearly, and firmly your rules about underage drinking. Remind him of the risks of drinking (for example, it’s illegal, it leads to physical risk, and it impairs judgment), and tell him what consequences you will impose if you learn that he has been drinking again.
– Join with other parents to set community standards for teen drinking and agree on how you all will share responsibility for enforcing those standards. Many middle schools and high schools help organize parent networks like this. It can simplify life for teenagers if they know they’re all being held to a common standard and that their community is made up of adults who care about their health and safety.
– Send a message loud and clear to all teens in your community that drinking and driving is never OK. And let your son and his friends know that they can call you to pick them up any time, day or night, if they ever encounter an unsafe situation.
– Encourage your local school or church to use peer support groups to help kids learn how to handle the pressure to drink or engage in other risky behavior. Teenagers often will hear a message from their peers that they refuse to hear from their parents. A few years ago, I watched a room of spellbound teenagers listen to a 17-year-old describe his experience in a treatment program for alcohol abuse. What I will never forget is his description of the many warning signs his parents did not (and would not) see, and how much he longed to be caught so that someone would set the limits for him that he was unable to set for himself.
Martha Erickson, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of Minnesota and senior fellow with the Children’s Youth & Family Consortium. She also hosts the radio show “Good Enough Moms” with her daughter Erin, Saturday afternoons on WFMP-FM 107.