Maryellen Pado started talking to her son when he was in elementary school about the responsibilities and risks involved with drinking alcohol. She had conversations with her children periodically over the years, so they would be prepared to make good decisions as adults.
And yet, the call still came during his senior year of high school: The cops had raided a party at a friend’s house, where he had been drinking.
“I was glad he told us the truth,” Pado said. “But I wasn’t sure what to say to him or to the parent who hosted the party.” That parent had provided alcohol to the underage drinkers.
Pado, who lives in the St. Louis area and works for Anheuser-Busch, turned to M.J. Corcoran, the parent coach who designed the company’s “Family Talk about Drinking” program. Corcoran says these conversations need to begin when children are young and evolve as they grow up.
When kids are younger, the focus should be on explaining clear boundaries and rules. When they move into tween and early teen years, parents should start asking more open-ended questions, such as: If you go to a party, and people are drinking there, what will you do? Ask kids how they might handle certain specific scenarios and situations.
As children get into later teen years and have more independence, the conversations should still include information about where a teen will be, what the transportation will be and who else will be there. Parents should share ways in which they can support a child’s decisions. For instance, come up with a word or emoji that can be texted if a teen find himself in an uncomfortable or unsafe situation and needs to be picked up. He or she may not be able to offer details in a phone or text conversation in front of friends. But the emoji could trigger a call back from a parent, who then says they are coming to pick up the child. This could help a teenager save face, and possibly, save a life.
Corcoran also says that parents need to sit down with each other and make sure they are on the same page before talking to their child. If one parent offers firm rules, but the other softens that stance later, it give a child mixed messages.
“Be very clear about what your beliefs are,” Corcoran said. “That will come through.”
And avoid a lecture at all costs.
“That won’t work,” she said. “That just shuts kids down.”
In Pado’s situation with her son, who is now a college student, Corcoran suggested having him research how alcohol affects a teen’s mind and body, and report back to his mom. Corcoran also recommended backing off a conversation with the adult who had provided the alcohol.
Pado told her son that even though he broke the rules in this instance, the rules still applied. They don’t allow underage drinking and insist upon following the law.
Pado had forbidden both her son and daughter from attending parties where alcohol was served when they were in high school. By their junior year, they informed her this would restrict them from attending any parties at all.
“You are saying ‘don’t go to parties,’” her son told her. She appreciated their openness and talked to them about staying away from alcohol and watching out for the safety of their friends. Her biggest fear was of them getting into a car accident.
“Remember, if you make a mistake, don’t make a bigger mistake after it,” she said. Before her son left for college, she talked to him about the different types of alcohol and how it’s impossible to know the alcohol content when people are mixing drinks at a party.
“You can’t just put your head in the sand and keep them locked in the house,” she said.