Is My Child Drinking? What Do I Do?
If you are worried that your child/teen may be drinking alcohol, don’t panic. You are not alone. There are many resources and help available. Let’s explore the signs and symptoms of alcohol use, ways to talk with your child/teen about concerns, and options you have for getting your child/teen help. The earlier you intervene, the easier it is to get your child/teen back on track!
Signs and Symptoms of a Problem1
There are several warning signs that your child/teen may be drinking, and these signs can be divided into three categories: physical, behavioral, and psychological.
- Bloodshot eyes
- Change in eating or sleeping patterns
- Change in or not caring about physical appearance
- Shakes or tremors, particularly in the morning
- Unusual body odor
- Injuries or bruises
- Change in behavior at school – missing school, skipping class, slipping grades
- Change in behavior at home – arguing, isolating, withdrawing
- Using mouthwash or incense to cover up smells
- Sudden change in peers or a switch in where they hang out and what they do
- Money or valuables missing
- Hiding from you, locking doors, or being secretive
- Moody, irritable, or easily angered
- Change in personality
- Change in level of motivation – seems spacey, unmotivated, or lethargic
- Prone to paranoia
- Appears withdrawn or depressed
What Do I Do First?
Start by having a conversation with your child/teen. If you are worried that your child/teen is drinking, prepare for this conversation so that you do not enter the conversation panicked, anxious, or angry. If you are angry and upset, your child/teen will react and get defensive. Remember that the goal of your conversation is to gather information, listen to your child/teen, and to share your concerns. The strategies for intentional communication will come in handy during this conversation.
- Make sure you have enough time set aside for this conversation, so it is not rushed or interrupted.
- Set the stage for the conversation by starting with an open question to gather information. It might be something like, “I have noticed that you have been quiet and sad lately. I worry when you don’t seem your usual self. What’s been going on?” You could also follow up with, “Catch me up a little bit about how things have been going.”
- If your child/teen responds with “Nothing” or something equally uninformative, you could say, “Unfortunately, when you don’t tell me anything, I am left assuming things and creating scenarios in my head, but you can help me sort out the truth.”
- You could also start the conversation with a direct approach regarding alcohol. That might sound something like, “Tell me what you think about alcohol” or “What are some of the stories you hear about drinking at school?”
- Let your child/teen know that you are there as support and to provide whatever help and resources your child/teen may need.
- Several short discussions held frequently versus a one-shot, one-hour conversation will have lasting “sticking” impact over time (meaning: multiple, ongoing conversations/dialogues are more effective – not a once and done approach).
There are generally two outcomes that result from having a conversation with your child/teen about alcohol. One outcome is that you as a parent or one in a parenting role feel better and are reassured that your child/teen is not drinking. The other outcome is that you are still concerned. Let’s explore both outcomes and discuss strategies that can help in both situations.
I Have Talked With My Child/Teen, and I Am Reassured That My Child/Teen Is Not Drinking Alcohol.
Even if you are reassured that your child/teen is not drinking alcohol, it is still important to assure your child/teen that you are available should they have questions about alcohol use or concerns about a friend who may be drinking alcohol. It is also important to reinforce to your child/teen that if they are ever in a situation where they have had too much to drink, that you are available to go and pick them up or arrange a ride for them.
Affirm your child’s/teen’s behavior to not engage in drinking.
The conversation opener might sound like: “I’m so glad we can have these conversations, and I appreciate you being truthful with me. I am also glad that you have made the choice not to drink alcohol.”
Invite your child/teen to engage with you in conversation in the future if they have a friend they are concerned about or if they make the choice at any point to drink alcohol.
These conversation openers may look something like this:
- “You should be proud of the choices you’ve made. I know that the pressure to drink alcohol at your age can be intense. Tell me a little more about what you know about your friends’ use of alcohol.”
- “You should be proud of the choices you’ve made. It can be hard when your friends are drinking alcohol, and you decide you’re not going to. Please know that in the future, if you make a different choice, I will come get you wherever you are to keep you safe.”
- In this situation, it would be valuable to follow up with your teen the next day (or in a few days) when you feel they are open to talking. You may choose to apply logical consequences.
Most Montana parents (93%) agree that parents should discuss their children’s future personal choices about alcohol with older teens to prepare their children for when they turn age 21.2
I Have Talked With My Child/Teen, and I Am Still Concerned That My Child/Teen Is Drinking…
…And My Child/Teen Is Concerned as Well.
It is scary to realize that your child/teen might have a problem with alcohol or may be struggling with issues that make them vulnerable to alcohol or drug use. Often, parents or those in a parenting role believe that their child’s/teen’s behavior is a reflection on them and their parenting. This can lead to parents wanting to deny that a problem exists and sweep the problem under the rug.
As difficult as it can be, it is important to have these tough conversations with your child/teen. It is also important to remind your child/teen that, according to your household rules, underage drinking is not permissible or tolerated. Work to withhold judgement and anger about your child’s/teen’s choices, keep your questions open ended (avoid questions that only allow for “yes” or “no” answers), and be comfortable with silence as you and your child/teen process this conversation.
Possible conversation openers include:
- “I am concerned about your alcohol use, and it sounds like you might be concerned as well. You also are aware that as a person under the age of 21, drinking is illegal. It is also a rule in our household that you cannot drink before the age of 21. How can we work together to make some changes around this behavior?”
- “Addressing your alcohol use is a priority for me. It sounds like you are also wanting to stop using alcohol. The fact that you recognize this as an issue is an important step in making some changes around your use. As you are aware, drinking under the age of 21 is illegal. It is also not permitted as a member of this household at your age. Let’s talk about some ways that you can stop drinking. It appears that you are willing to be open with me about this, and I will support you and not penalize you as long as we are making positive steps towards stopping this behavior.”
…But My Child/Teen Is Not Concerned.
Unfortunately, if a child/teen is on the path to developing a problem with alcohol use, the likelihood that they will just grow out of it is low. Without intervention, the problem continues to worsen. It is not because your child/teen is not strong enough or doesn’t have the will power. It is because of the impact that alcohol has on the brain that it is very difficult for your child/teen to quit on their own.
The earlier you intervene, the easier it will be for your child/teen to get back on track. Sometimes intervening is as simple as telling your child/teen that you are concerned and having an intentional conversation about what you are noticing. Other times intervening might involve getting professional help. Research suggests that when parents or those in a parenting role intervene and provide the child/teen with the support they need, they can reduce the likelihood that their child/teen develops a substance use disorder.3
The earlier you intervene, the easier it will be for your child/teen to get back on track!
Your child/teen may appear to deny that they have a problem with alcohol. Use language that expresses your concern while withholding judgement and anger about their choices. Avoid questions that will elicit only “yes” or “no” responses and be comfortable with silence as you and your child/teen process this conversation.
You may find that the conversation gets too difficult to continue at some point, and you or your child/teen needs to take a break. Be open to this and agree to continue the conversation at a specific future time if necessary. The conversation starters below assume some level of denial or resistance from your child.
The following possibilities take an empathetic, gentler approach:
- “I am really concerned about your drinking. I’ve noticed that you are…not keeping up with your school work like you used to…hanging out with different friends these days…not as patient with your little brother…Listen, I know it can be hard to stop, especially when you are using to help with feelings of stress or anxiety. Let’s talk about what we need to do to get you back on track.”
- “I am really concerned about your drinking. Remember, I was your age once, and I know what it’s like to deal with pressure from friends and the stress of school and sports. I am here to support you. Because you are still living in our home, I am also responsible to keep you safe and prevent you from behaviors that could ruin your future. Talk to me about what we can do to turn this behavior around.”
The following possibilities take a sterner approach for an ambivalent or resistant child/teen by asking the child/teen to consider the possible consequences of this choice or explore further what led them to this decision.
- “I am really concerned about your drinking. Not only is it illegal under the age of 21 and not permitted in our household, drinking at your age can have serious consequences. What kinds of things do you think can happen if you are caught drinking?”
- “I am really concerned about your drinking. Not only is it illegal under the age of 21 and not permitted in our household, drinking at your age can have serious consequences. Tell me more about what led you to use alcohol.”
Remember that whatever your child/teen shares with you about why they decided to use alcohol, it was likely a valid choice in their mind. It is important to listen without judgement and communicate that this is not a legal choice for them at this age and that the behavior will need to cease.
Reassure your child/teen that you will support them in getting help to stop and remind them that you will also hold them accountable for ceasing the behavior. Keep in mind that while the choice to drink may have been a result of peer pressure or the desire to “look cool,” drinking may also be a way for your child to manage deeper issues like depression, anxiety, or stress. Work with your child/teen to uncover the core issues and identify appropriate treatment to handle these issues in a healthy and appropriate manner.
Seek assistance through a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Provider to help address needs and find support to keep them from falling into addiction.
Connect with other Montana parents about underage drinking and drugs at LetsFaceItMt.com.
Download and print the at-a-glance resource highlighting key information for Underage Drinking.