Mixed MessagesAbout Alcohol

Now Is the Right Time!

Now is the right time to become informed about the challenges that may face your child/teen about alcohol and how you can position them for success. National trending data shows we are headed in the right direction. Alcohol use among teens across the United States is less prevalent than even five years ago. 

Underage drinking remains a temptation for our children/teens, and can have a major impact on their brain development.2 Surveys of students reveal that 1 in 5 initiated alcohol use before the age of 13.1Research also confirms that the younger a child/teen is when they begin to drink, the more likely they’ll be engaged in behaviors that harm themselves or others. Those individuals who began drinking before the age of fifteen were four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol at some point in their lives.3

Children/Teens ages 11-14 require risk taking in order to exercise their responsible decision-making abilities. And, this is the age in which they will be introduced to greater risk-taking opportunities whether that involves alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behaviors. Children/Teens ages 11-14 also gain a deeper social awareness so that they begin to see from the perspective of their peers. This newfound empathy can create social anxiety, and, as with any new capacity, they may make incorrect assumptions about peers’ impressions of them adding to a heightened sensitivity. They may feel like they are “on stage” being judged by classmates regularly. Their need to belong becomes even greater as they assert their independence. These challenges arise as a normal part of your child’s/teen’s development.

Adolescent development, including the need for risk taking, lack of fully formed rational thinking, and the need to belong socially, increases the risk for using alcohol. But, children/teens who are armed with the facts, prepared with an escape plan, and have supportive families who will get them out of harm’s way – no questions asked – are far more likely to be able to resist peer pressure and navigate the challenges of the teen years successfully. The steps below will prepare you to help grow your child’s/teen’s skills to make healthy choices about alcohol use.

Why Mixed Messages About Alcohol?

Children/Teens receive numerous mixed messages about alcohol consumption and its place in their lives and in their communities. They may see commercials or alcohol products placed in a glamorous context in shows. They may encounter drunk adults at weddings, festivals, or concerts. Perhaps children/teens in those encounters view those others as having fun, or perhaps, they view them as scary and out of control. These outside messages, though they have an impact, are not as critical as the messages that you, your partner, and your immediate family and friends send through your actions to your child/teen about alcohol. And, it’s never too late to become more fully aware of the messages your child/teen is receiving, their impacts, and how you can shape the messages you send going forward to promote healthy choices.

Today, in the short term, discussing the role of alcohol can:

  • teach facts about alcohol that will help your child/teen stay safe;
  • cultivate a more trusting relationship;
  • help you and your child/teen become more aware of your family’s behaviors related to alcohol;
  • strengthen communications between family members about the role of alcohol; and
  • help prepare your child/teen to make healthy choices.

Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:

  • builds capacity to assert boundaries and establish healthy relationships;
  • cultivates healthy habits that will contribute to their ongoing emotional and mental wellbeing;
  • feels more competent with making responsible, well-informed decisions;
  • exercises greater self-control;
  • makes more conscious choices about their behaviors; and
  • feels a greater sense of trust and support from you.

Five Steps for Mixed Messages About Alcohol

This five-step process helps you and your child/teen learn more about alcohol use and how you can promote healthy choices while preventing peer pressure leading to alcohol use and misuse. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).

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These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.

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Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.

Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input

You can get your child/teen thinking about healthy choices with substances by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen:

  • can think through and problem solve any peer pressure they might experience related to alcohol use;
  • has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themself (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies and taking responsibility for their own relationships);
  • will have more motivation and courage to take responsibility for their actions; and
  • will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
  • Ask open-ended questions. First of all, pick a time when you are enjoying being together or when all is calm and relaxed. Driving in the car is an ideal time (when you don’t have a time pressure) since your child/teen will feel less “on the spot” when you are not looking directly at them. You might ask:
    • “What have you noticed about how we use alcohol in our family?”
    • “What are some things you have learned about how alcohol affects your body?”
    • “What are some things your friends say about alcohol?”
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Often our children/teens will have different impressions about our attitudes and values toward alcohol based on what they’ve observed. Listen carefully to their understanding of the role of alcohol in your family’s life and how they perceive your values. Their impressions may surprise you!

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Don’t get caught up in feeling defensive about your own drinking practices. Keep focused on the fact that your children/teens are just at the start of understanding alcohol. It’s a brand new chance to offer essential guidance. Focus on the impacts you can have today and going forward.

Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling

Though your child/teen has likely been exposed throughout childhood to adults drinking, you may or may not have had a specific conversation about the role of alcohol. Their first impressions about alcohol may have formed from a number of experiences with adults’ behaviors. Because alcohol can be a common presence in our lives and at celebratory events, we can have a challenging time figuring out what lessons our children/teens have learned from that modeling. Yet we know that modeling (our actions) is the greatest teacher. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what you can do.

  • First, examine family messages around the role of alcohol and think about what it’s teaching your child/teen. Some questions you can ask yourself include:
    • “Is drinking alcohol a part of our daily lives? Weekly lives? When is alcohol present when our children/teens are around?”
    • “Is alcohol consumed in moderation typically? Or do individuals drink to the point of intoxication (more than 1-2 drinks)?”
    • “Do children/teens sip or have a taste of alcohol at any events?Or are children/teens given their own alcoholic beverages (under 21) at a certain age?”
    • When someone becomes intoxicated: “How do other adults react to that person?”
      • “Are they laughed at?”
      • “Are they the source of ridicule?”
      • “Are they a source of shame?”
      • “Do people reject them?”
      • “Do they become more popular?”
      • “How is that person treated?”
    • If there are relatives that are dealing with alcohol use disorders like alcohol addiction, “How are they treated by the family? How are they spoken about when they are not around
  • The answers to these questions formulate the modeling your children/teens witness and what they are currently being taught about alcohol. Though you may want to have the family value of kindness and loving support, alcohol use and abuse can be a source of shame in many families. Understanding what challenges you face can better position you to teach your child/teen about alcohol in healthy, constructive ways.
  • Talk about your family history with alcohol. Research shows that children/teens of parents with alcohol use disorders (like addiction) are between four and ten times more likely to become alcohol dependent themselves than are children/teens with no relatives who experience addiction.3 These children/teens are more likely to begin drinking at a younger age and progressively struggle as they grow.4 If this is true for your family, talking about family history can break that family cycle and teach your child/teen how to make healthy choices. Though all parents need to prepare their children/teens with information, coping strategies, and responsible decision-making skills, those families with a history of alcohol addiction are particularly vulnerable.
  • Create empathy and compassion through understanding. Promote empathy and understanding as family members deal with challenges in life. This is the ideal time to teach your child/teen about the reasons behind alcohol use and misuse.
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Address your past drinking behavior or current alcohol use.
Tell the truth about your past and current alcohol use. Your child/teen may be more aware of your drinking behaviors than you realize. Not being open about them can hurt the trust in your relationship. While you don’t need to glorify your drinking behaviors as a teen or young adult, you don’t want to lie or avoid the topic either. You can remind your child/teen that public health as changed over the years. There are many things we know now that we didn’t know then. There have been a lot of efforts to reduce underage drinking because now we know it is far more harmful that we knew even 20 years ago.

Explain why you want your child/teen to abstain from drinking and drug use. Some reasons might be: increased risk of experiencing negative consequences, their brain is still developing, alcohol is an addictive substance, and family history of alcohol or drug problems.

Invite your child/teen to ask questions. Talking about your past drinking or drug use behavior or current alcohol or drug use can be a teachable moment. Emphasize what you have learned from your experience and why you have reached the conclusion that it is important for your child/teen not to drink or use drugs.

Be clear about your expectations about alcohol and drug use.

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Talk about why people may use alcohol to manage stress. Digging a bit into the reasons behind alcohol use and misuse can begin to stir empathy for yourself and in your child/teen. This does not mean supporting the unhealthy behaviors but realizing that they have an illness they must treat, just as we might view a family member dealing with diabetes, asthma, or other chronic diseases. This is a family value worth communicating!

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Become a strong parent advocate. If you are in a circumstance in which relatives become obviously intoxicated, trust your gut. Your family is likely no longer safe since there are individuals present who have lost control. When people become unsafe, it’s your responsibility as a parent to get you and your family to safety. Leave the celebration. Let your child/teen know that the reason you are leaving is because there are adults who have made unhealthy choices and have lost their sense of control. This is modeling your own resistance to peer pressure!

  • Take the learning further because your child/teen will increasingly need to find ways to deal with the stress and social pressures that they face. Expectations of who they are and what they “should” do increase with age and their social awareness. So, this is the perfect time to discuss and brainstorm options for coping strategies. You could ask, “When you are upset, what makes you feel better?” Brainstorm a list together. Write it down.
  • Discuss values. Instead of diving into a discussion about alcohol, first you may want to talk about health and healthy development. You and your family may want to consider the following questions:
    • “What do you do to keep healthy (diet, exercise, preventative doctor visits)?”
    • “How do food and drinks fit into keeping your body healthy?”
    • “What about the role of medicine: do you take medication? For what and why? What is your attitude about medicine? When is it important to take it? When do you want to avoid taking it? If you take medication, what side effects have you experienced?”
    • “What are the many substances that alter your body and brain like coffee, tea, over-the-counter medicine, prescription medicine, alcohol, energy drinks, others?”
    • “How do those altering substances fit into a healthy lifestyle?”
    • “What do you and/or your partner or other family members believe should be the role of alcohol in family life and with children/teens?”
    • “What do you want your children/teens to learn?”
    • “How can you align your own actions with those values?”
  • Create a family ritual out of expressing gratitude for your lives. Children/Teens can get caught up in developmentally-normal social anxiety. You can create a balancing force by focusing on what is good and strong and healthy in your lives. Whether you make a habit of sharing grateful thoughts when sitting down to a family meal or keep a running list on your family’s chalkboard, find a way to share specifics on what is positive in your lives, and your child/teen will think in those terms as well. Children/Teens who are more aware of how they belong in your family and belong to greater community are more likely to respect rules and boundaries and make healthy choices.
  • Set goals to demonstrate values. Draw a metaphorical line in the sand today. This is the first day of teaching your child/teen about alcohol. Now that you have articulated your family’s hopes and values for what you want to teach your child/teen, consider what goals you can set for yourself and what goals you can encourage your child/teen to set in order to align actions with values.
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Did you know that giving children/teens at any age under 21 sips of alcohol sends a clear message to children/teens that authority figures feel drinking is acceptable for them. These children/teens are more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs younger and more frequently with friends than those families who did not permit sipping.5 Researchers advise not allowing any drinking even on special occasions for those under 21.

Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits

Practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children/teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time they perform the new action.

  • Take the first small step. If you’ve set a goal to leave situations that feel unsafe, for example, set your family’s expectations ahead of time. If a wedding is coming up that you know could pose a challenge with drinking relatives, decide ahead of time on a reasonable time to leave together before trouble might begin.
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When your child/teen comes to you with a peer pressure challenge, reflect back their feelings. Ask open-ended questions to prompt their thinking. Show your trust and support that they can solve their own problems with reflection.

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Tell stories of your own or your child’s/teen’s ability to empathize and be kind to others. These stories will begin to shape your child’s/teen’s identity as one who is able to empathize and act compassionately no matter the social pressures.

  • Encourage leadership. After all, in every group, there emerges a leader. And, they are typically the individuals who pressure others to go along with what they want to do. As you build your child’s/teen’s social and emotional skills – the very ones that are also key leadership skills – they will have an opportunity to influence the decision making of their friendship group.
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Your young leader will need to become regularly reflective about their choices since they’re influencing a group. Talk about social situations and opportunities for decisions. Give your child/teen plenty of chances to decide where they fall on a variety of social issues (exercising their sense of responsibility and right and wrong).

Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success

At this point, you’ve learned together the mixed messages and modeling your child/teen encounters related to alcohol consumption. You’ve practiced by setting goals and working toward them together while sharing success stories. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different. But, the challenge of this age range is that they may initiate a fight if they feel you view them as not fully competent. Be sure you are empowering them to think through consequences of their choices. Be there if they need you but only if they ask for your support.

  • Ask key questions.
    • “Are there times when your friends or other classmates want you to do something you don’t want to do?”
    • “How would you respond if your friends asked you to drink?”
  • Reflect on outcomes. “Seems like you are worrying today about your friends and their impressions of you. Often it helps if you talk about it. What’s going on?”
  • Stay engaged. Be ready to talk when your child/teen is eager. It can feel like their willingness to talk comes at the most inopportune moments. Remember that these are precious windows of opportunity for you to learn about what’s going on in their lives and offer support.
  • Engage in further practice. Talk about times when you don’t want to go with the crowd. Perhaps the school PTA made a decision and you weren’t supportive. How will you keep your relationships but also make responsible decisions for yourself and your family that may not go along with the crowd? Help build your child’s/teen’s leadership and assertive communication skills by talking about times when you set healthy boundaries and maintained relationships as well.

Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation

Though adults tend to forget, our attention is still our child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. They want and need our recognition of their competence in order for them to feel competent. When it comes to helping children/teens understand the role and risks of alcohol, it can be a monumental task battling urges to belong and perceive it the way friends or peers do. Recognize even small efforts on your child’s/teen’s part to assert their own needs, exercise self-control, and make decisions based on your family’s values and their unique identity.

  • Notice! Times when your child/teen chooses something different other than what the crowd is doing are times to recognize. Stopping to reflect on relationships and considering consequences and how their decisions will impact others are the fundamentals of responsible decision making and deserve recognition.
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Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “I notice you really reflected on whether or not to go with James to that party considering all of the potential risks. That’s really taking responsibility and thinking through consequences!” – can promote more of the same.

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This age group is trying to define their identity as an independent person. Comments that point out how they are acting in ways that are self-sufficient will help them see how their decision making is defining who they are and what they value.

  • Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition is a tool to promote positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort like using self-control and let them know you see them.
  • Build celebrations into your routine. Children/Teens are constantly seeking new adventures and the thrill of trying out something new. Keep this in mind when considering celebrations. Could you try out rock climbing as a family? When your child/teen is meeting academic goals, that’s worth celebrating. When your child/teen is meeting friendship goals, that’s another opportunity to celebrate.


Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.


Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Mixed Messages About Alcohol. Ages 11-19. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.