Conversation Starters for Teens and Parents: How to Talk About the Hard Stuff

Perhaps the hardest thing about being a parent of a teenager is having difficult conversations that can be awkward or tense for one or both of you. The key to making these conversations more comfortable and productive is developing a strong parent-child relationship, and that starts with open communication at an early age.

Even if you enjoy a strong relationship, parents and teens often need guidance on particularly tricky topics, including underage drinking, drugs, and sex. How do you begin these discussions, and when do you start? What subjects or issues should you discuss?

The tips and conversation starters for teens and parents provided below can help jumpstart the important dialogue, and these discussions can ultimately encourage teens to make decisions that are responsible and healthy.

Rather than tiptoeing around difficult topics, continue reading to learn how to dive right in; and make the most of the talks you have with your teen.

Starting the Conversation Early

The earlier you start the conversation about underage drinking with your child, the better. Most children are exposed to alcohol in some form at an early age, and they’re naturally curious about it. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), children as young as 9 years old start viewing alcohol in a more positive way. Half of the children say they have tried alcohol by age 15.

Many parents don’t start talking to their teens about alcohol and other drugs until after their kids have already experimented with them. Rather than bringing it up after teens “get caught,” experts recommend communicating early and often with kids about alcohol and educating young people about the realities of underage drinking.

Consider the following tips as you begin talking with your teen about underage drinking.

Listen First

Conversations about serious subjects between parents and teens are commonly referred to in pop culture as “the talk,” referring to the dreaded moment when a teen and parent discuss sex or drugs.

Experts do not recommend “the talk,” which is indicative of an uncomfortable lecture. Rather than lecturing a child about underage drinking, it’s important to earn his or her trust by listening first.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends asking young teens what they know about alcohol and what they think of teen drinking. No matter their answer, parents should give their kids time to share their thoughts uninterrupted.

Understanding your child’s point of view on a subject and giving him or her space to share their thoughts and experiences will not only build trust and improve your parent-child relationship but also help you navigate the ongoing discussion.

Debunk Myths

Perhaps you noticed misconceptions children have about alcohol while listening to your child. Educating children about the realities of underage drinking with teenage drinking statistics equips them with information that can guide their decision-making if they’re exposed to risky behavior.

Here are some important facts from NIH to get you started:

  • Alcohol is not a “safer” drug than other illegal substances. In fact, alcohol kills more teenagers per year than all other drugs combined.
  • Beer and wine are not less dangerous for young people than distilled spirits such as vodka and whiskey. A 12-ounce can of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor all contain the same amount of alcohol and have the same impact on your body and mind.
  • Anyone can develop a serious alcohol problem, including a teenager. In fact, the earlier in life a person uses alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a substance use disorder.
  • On average, it takes two to three hours for a single drink to leave a person’s system. Nothing speeds up the process, including taking cold showers or chugging water.

Explain Risks of Underage Drinking

Children can make more educated decisions when presented with accurate information. In many cases, they’re not going to get sound information from their friends or from media depictions of alcohol consumption. Parents can help by discussing how alcohol consumption impacts a young person’s body and mind and the risks associated with underage drinking.

Research shows alcohol affects the adolescent brain differently than the adult brain because the human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25. In fact, kids who begin drinking before age 15 have a 40 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic, compared to a 7 percent chance for those who wait until they are 21. Furthermore, scientists have found underage drinking can decrease brain activity, cause memory loss, and impact coordination and impulse control, among other side effects.

Underage drinking carries countless additional risks. Consider the list below from the CDC.

Youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience:

  • Higher rates of school absences or lower grades
  • Social problems
  • Legal problems
  • Unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity
  • Disruption of normal growth or sexual development
  • Physical and sexual violence
  • Increased risk of suicide and homicide
  • Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and other unintentional injuries
  • Memory problems
  • Misuse of other substances
  • Changes in brain development that may have life-long effects
  • Alcohol poisoning

Clearly Define Expectations and Consequences and Offer Support

Set clear rules and boundaries and emphasize your expectation that your child will not participate in underage drinking. Talk to your child early about your expectations and establish consequences for breaking the rules.

Parents can help encourage their children to follow the rules and make healthy and safe choices by setting a good example and practicing what you preach. Mayo Clinic recommends parents only drink in moderation (if at all). Explain why it’s OK for adults to drink responsibly and describe the rules you follow, such as not drinking and driving.

Encouraging children to pursue their passions and participate in supervised extra-curricular clubs, after-school programs, and part-time jobs will improve their self-esteem, keep them motivated, and decrease the likelihood they’ll experiment with alcohol and drugs.

Finally, make sure to discuss an action plan with your teen if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation, such as facing peer pressure to drink at a social event.

Keep the Conversation Going

Talking with your kids about alcohol, drugs, sex, and other subjects should be an ongoing discussion. Rather than having one big talk, have regular little talks that let your child know the lines of communication are always open.

For most families, this means spending quality time together, asking open-ended questions, and building a strong parent-child relationship. For proof of the value of quality time, consider this: A 2010 report found 60 percent of teens who say they eat dinners with their families at least five times a week are less likely to say they have friends who use alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, or prescription drugs that are for other people.

How Can Talk It Out Resources Help?

Talk It Out NC has tools and resources parents can use to start the conversation and talk to kids about the dangers of underage drinking.

Take the Pledge to talk it out together and make ongoing conversations about underage drinking part of your regular routine.