Having the ‘Hard’ Conversation With Your Teens about Alcohol

By: Dr Justin Coulson

Setting boundaries with our kids can be tough. Once they become teens, it gets even tougher. And boundaries related to alcohol consumption can be some of the most challenging of all.

Having the ‘hard’ conversation with your teens about alcohol

How do you set rules and boundaries about alcohol with your kids? Here are 6 tips for talking about alcohol with your kids:

1. Get Your Relationship Right

A while ago, a father contacted me for help with his teenage daughter. They were fighting – a lot. It had escalated to a point where he had hit her, and since that episode she had refused to speak to him, look at him, or even be in the same room as him.

It is impossible for us to have any influence over our children and their decisions when our relationship is consumed with contention. The kids simply shut us out.

Attention is the currency of our relationships with our teens. Even when they act like they don’t care, they generally do – and they will respond positively to a chance to spend time with us.

2. Get Educated

What do you know about alcohol and the developing brain?

Or about how your attitude to alcohol can influence your child’s decisions about when to drink – and what to drink?

Do you know what the law is in your state in regards to alcohol and under 18’s?

The more you know about alcohol, the more you can guide your kids effectively. Check out the Drinkwise site for some outstanding resources. Or just google ‘alcohol and adolescence’. You’ll find a mountain of information.

3. Be an example

I know it sounds trite. And I know it probably doesn’t even seem fair. But the simple truth is that our kids follow our example. They’ve done it since they were babies, and they’ll continue doing it into adulthood.

So now that you’re equipped with this alcohol info, take a look at your alcohol-related habits. Chances are that you don’t have a ‘problem’, but as this TV ad shows, we don’t have to be a problem to impact on our kids. Psychologists call it the ‘intergenerational transfer’ of behaviour.

Is your alcohol-related behaviour transferring to the decisions your teens might make?

4. Find out what your kids think

It seems that most adults expect that kids will want to drink – and find a way to do it. And for the most part, we’re generally accepting of this. But our kids don’t always see it that way (as this research shows). In fact, lots of kids don’t want to drink, but just don’t know what to do about the pressure that comes from others.

Drinkwise reports that two-thirds of 12-15 year-olds haven’t touched alcohol. And 20% of 16-17 year-olds abstain as well!

So ask your kids what they think. Your conversation may be illuminating.

5. Set boundaries together

Yes, I know that this sounds idealistic. How many of us can really sit down with our teens and have a ‘limit setting’ conversation?

Every family works differently, and teen temperaments can clash with parent personalities, but try these ideas:

  1. Get out of the house. You’ll almost certainly find the conversation will be more successful if you go out for a hot chocolate or ice-cream and bring up the things you’ve discovered – and then enjoy where the conversation goes.
  2. Ask questions more than you talk.
  3. Find out how your kids feel about alcohol-related incidents in the media. This can be a great conversation starter, and it naturally leads to discussion around personal values and limits related to alcohol.
  4. Talk with your kids about how YOU are ‘getting’ YOUR head around the research too. Tell them about how your discoveries have made you want to make change.
  5. Ask your kids what they know about alcohol and the law. And see if they understand why those laws are in place.

Remember, that when your expectations are high, your kids are more likely to delay their introduction to alcohol, and if they do decide to drink they’ll do so at lower volumes. So make your expectations clear (and high) as part of the conversation.

6. Stay involved and monitor

Ask the kids where they’re going and who with. Find out what they’ll be doing. Offer to drive them there and pick them up. Get to know the parents of the other kids.

The research on the importance of parental involvement and monitoring is clear: when you stay involved and show you’re monitoring things, your teens will be more likely to stick with your expectations.

Our involvement with our kids needs to be maintained the right way though – and this is where we come full circle. The quality of our relationship matters. Kids do best when they have parents who are strict and firm in their expectations, but who are also warm and understanding.

Remember, if you come down too hard, you’ll push them away from you and straight into the thing you want them to avoid – in this case, alcohol. And if you’re too relaxed, they’ll see that as your endorsement of their behaviour, which can lead to binge-drinking and other risky experimentation.


There is an abundance of evidence to support the argument that delaying our kids’ consumption of alcohol for as long as possible is best for them. And research shows that the majority of Australian parents are working at doing just that. By maintaining high expectations, setting a wise example, and keeping our relationship strong, it is more likely that our children will delay their alcohol experiences longer, and drink less when they do drink.

Useful resources/references:


Drinkwise 5 point plan: http://www.drinkwise.org.au/parents/delay

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

Feature image: Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash.

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