The Secret to Preventing Teen Drinking

Jennifer O'Neill
·Writer
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Photo by Corbis 

Practice makes perfect — even when it comes to discouraging kids from underage drinking. Parents’ consistent and sustained messages to their children about restricting alcohol make a real difference in reducing adolescent drinking, according to research published in the December issue of Addictive Behaviors.  

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The three-year study, conducted by Craig Colder, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo, included annual interviews with parents and their kids starting when the children were 10 and 11 years old. Families were asked questions about drinking and the home environment. “We wanted to understand how kids’ attitudes develop,” Colder wrote in a press release. 

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Household rules against booze were successful in discouraging children from drinking, he found. But as time went on and parents slackened the rules, eased the consequences of breaking them and spent less time talking with their kids about the dangers of drinking, parents’ power to prevent underage imbibing weakened. “We found a correlation between the shifting of those three aspects of parenting and increases in alcohol use,” wrote Colder. “The more rapid those declines, the more rapid the increase in the onset of alcohol use.”

“What our data are suggesting is that you can’t control all of your kids’ decisions, but you can help them to make good choices in situations where alcohol is available,” said Colder. “You want kids to think about and reflect upon the pros and cons of drinking based on your previous discussions.”

With more than 24 percent of underage kids (between 12 and 20 years old) drinking, and 15 percent of them binge drinking, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, these talks are as important as ever.

The trick to catching kids’ ears isn’t periodic interventionesque sit-downs, though. “Parents need to bring it up as a part of natural conversation, every time underage drinking comes up on TV, in the newspaper, in a movie and such,” Proactive Parenting educator Sharon Silver tells Yahoo Parenting. “If it becomes part of a natural dialogue, then your message becomes woven into the fabric of who the child is. It becomes part of their values.”

Waiting for that perfect moment to talk just doesn’t work. “It’ll come out as a lecture and kids will automatically tune it out,” she explains. But through continuous stories about your experiences as a teen, and talks about the dangers of drinking highlighted in the news, Silver says a kid will “internalize that it’s not OK because they’ve been having these conversations all of their life.”

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