Having conversations with kids about difficult topics is not likely on any Mom’s or Dad’s list of things they look forward to doing. Death, sex, and parents divorcing are just a few of the toughest topics to explain. But even at a young age, kids are more aware of the world around them than they might get credit for being. So, when it comes to things that they are more likely to be directly exposed to at a younger age, like alcohol consumption, opening up the dialogue early on can help them better understand the importance of boundaries — and prime them for more difficult topics down the line.
According to Laurie Singer MS, LMFT, BCBA, parents can consider talking to kids about alcohol consumption as early as five years old. "By their nature, children are inquisitive, precocious, and impressionable. If you're a family who enjoys a glass of wine or beer in the evening or on weekends, it's wise that your child learns early on that you're consuming an adult, alcoholic drink which is unhealthy for them," Singer tells Scary Mommy, adding that "When you start discussing difficult topics like alcohol with young children, the groundwork is laid for them to feel more comfortable talking about other issues, such as drugs and relationships, as they get older. It's so important for children to feel safe coming to us with questions. And it provides us with the platform to teach them how to say 'no,' stay safe and make healthy choices."
Part of the reason it's crucial to have this conversation early on is because 10 percent of 12-year-olds say they’ve tried alcohol, according to SAMHSA.gov. When kids turn 15, that number goes to 50 percent, which is why the sooner you talk about it, the better the influence you can make. Typically, between the ages of nine and 13, children begin to see alcohol differently.
Don't be surprised if your child is the one to raise the subject first. Whether they witness alcohol consumption firsthand or see it in a movie, they will probably have questions and, like most kids, will want answers. Here are a few tips for tackling this conversation, broken down by age group.
How to Talk to Your 5- to 7-Year-Old About Alcohol
If they're on the younger side, keeping it simple and comparing it to other concepts they might already understand is the best approach. Singer suggests comparing it to sweets, explaining that just like too much sugar is unhealthy for the body and can have negative effects, so can too much alcohol.
How to Talk to Tweens About Alcohol
Of course, the negative side of alcohol consumption transcends this basic explanation. As children mature and become more independent, talking to them in-depth about alcohol impairment and abuse can help them better understand the risks associated with it and prepare them for situations where they may be tempted, pressured, or even coerced into drinking. You can give them a brief overview of the effects of alcohol, including:
- Bad breath
- Impaired judgment
- Distorted perception
- Memory loss
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Liver damage
- Heart and brain damage
Because tweens are at that tender developmental age where fitting in can feel like the most important thing, it’s also prudent to include in your conversation why thinking and acting for yourself is vital.
How to Talk to Teens About Alcohol
By this point, you’ll hopefully see the results of all that groundwork you laid in having open and honest conversations with your child over the years. When the lines of communication are open, your teen will likely come to you with questions and/or be receptive to listening when you want to discuss the dangers of underage drinking.
If you’re a parent of a teen, though, you know that scare tactics don’t work — in fact, they can sometimes have the opposite effect. So, instead of lecturing your teen about drinking, you can:
- Highlight smart reasons not to drink, i.e. if you have an athlete at home, explain how it can affect athletic performance.
- Set a good example with your personal behavior by drinking responsibly and fostering emotional intelligence, i.e. working through your feelings in healthy ways instead of “self-medicating” with alcohol.
- Help them anticipate peer-pressure drinking scenarios by having practice conversations about those situations.
- Ask them to be honest with you if they do try alcohol.
- Make sure you have a family protocol in place if your teen ever finds themself in a situation where someone has been drinking and tries to drive or is engaging in any other risky behavior.
Big Takeaways About This Big (Ongoing) Conversation
At the end of the day, it's the parent's choice when and how to talk about alcohol with their kids, but as Singer mentioned, allowing for open communication can create a trusting parent-child relationship where kids feel comfortable asking questions and for help with other difficult topics such as depression and relationships. As complex as growing up can be, assuring kids that their parents are there to listen and help is necessary for making them feel safe and understood. Setting clear expectations from a young age goes a line way toward keeping the lines of communication open.
Need assistance talking to your kids about alcohol and drinking? Reach out to your family doctor or mental health professional, and check out these resources from The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Laurie Singer, licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified behavior analyst
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