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Parent-teen relationship key to your teen's alcohol use

Parent-teen relationship key to your teen's alcohol use
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Tips for parents

Is there a problem?

What to do

Resources

Reading for parents

Reading for teens

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Wednesday September 15, 2010

What should you do when you discover your teenager has been drinking?

It's a complex question, one that is getting asked more often in the wake of a recent study that suggests a lot of Manitoba teens will be experimenting with alcohol this school year.

The survey, conducted by a provincial health promotion group, found that nearly half of Manitoba students between Grades 9 and 12 had at least one drink during a 30 day period last year. Moreover, as many as three in 10 had engaged in binge drinking - consuming at least five drinks in one sitting - during a one-month period, according to the survey.

Those are sobering statistics.

Fortunately, parents are not without influence when it comes to teens and alcohol.

Marion Cooper is Team Manager, Mental Health Promotion with the Winnipeg Health Region. She says two factors influence your teen's relationship with alcohol: how they are feeling about life and how often they're drinking.

Teen years can be a wild, wacky roller coaster of emotions. If your teen manages complex emotions by spending time with a friend, going for a run or spending time outdoors, they have the tools to manage stressors fairly well. If not, they may drink to fit in or cope with school, social, family or work pressures.

Using alcohol to fit in or cope is not a good idea for anyone, especially teens. Alcohol abuse can have devastating physical, emotional, social and financial consequences. That's why frank discussions with your teen about alcohol use are important.

"As a parent of a teen, you need to be comfortable having tough conversations about their alcohol use," says Cooper. "You need to know if your teen is experimenting with alcohol, where they're getting the alcohol and who they're drinking with. They need to know how you feel about this experimentation and the consequences of alcohol use," she says. "Your teen needs to know how alcohol affects a body, how drinking and driving is something that will not be tolerated and the consequences of long-term alcohol abuse. This level of honesty and openness is essential in communicating with your teen about alcohol use."

Parents also need to be mindful that many teenagers who abuse alcohol or drugs often do so to cope with other mental health issues, says Cooper.

Roxanne Sarrasin, of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, says studies show that nearly half of teenagers who have substance abuse issues also have a co-occurring disorder. "This can range from depression, anxiety to some form of psychosis," says Sarrasin.

Frequency can be very telling when it comes to alcohol use. While experimentation isn't something that should be condoned or supported, experimentation with alcohol is common amongst adolescents. While partying with their friends, they may try drinking to see how it feels, to get drunk or simply to fit in with their friends.

If your teen is regularly reaching for alcohol, spending most weekends drunk or if their social activities hinge on drinking with their friends, it may be time to have a talk with them about their alcohol use. "If your teenager is getting drunk every weekend, that could be a harmful pattern that may warrant your attention and intervention. It may suggest alcohol abuse," says Cooper.

One key element can impact both of these factors: the parent-teen relationship.

Building and maintaining a good relationship with your teenager can help them navigate adolescence from a place of strength and empowerment, says Cooper. "It's very important to maintain a strong connection with your child during adolescence and to create the kind of relationship that encourages them to talk about alcohol and drugs with you in a safe and caring manner," she says.

Being actively involved in your teen's life - knowing who their friends are, providing support and advice - means you can help ensure they're doing okay and intervene sooner rather than later. "By knowing your teen, their friends and fostering a healthy line of communication with them, you can be actively involved in helping them make healthy choices," says Cooper. "The relationship between parents and adolescents during this time of exploration is key to identifying harmful patterns before they become a problem."

Tips for parents

How can you encourage your teens to make healthy choices about drug and alcohol use?

  • Talk to your kids. Stop what you're doing and really listen. If you're otherwise engaged, you might miss an important bit of information that could give you some insight about where your teen is at.
  • Communicate your family values around alcohol and drug use to your children.
  • Model good behaviour. If you're taking medication, explain why. If you're hosting a dry party, explain why you're doing that to your kids. If you're serving alcohol at a party, make sure to provide non-alcoholic beverages for those who choose not to drink. Use these situations to model responsible alcohol use.
  • Create family policies around drug and alcohol use and share them with your children. Be prepared to follow through if your young person breaks the rules. That reinforces you mean what you say and their actions are connected to what happens to them. Remain willing to adjust the family policies as your communication with your teen provides you with further information and insight.
  • Talk to other parents. Get a feel for what their values are around drug and alcohol use. This will help you determine if additional supervision is required at certain parties and/or whether it's a good idea for your teen to attend.
  • Brainstorm with them about ways they could positively respond to peer pressure. Help them find language they are comfortable using saying no and have them practice it by suggesting possible scenarios that could present themselves.
  • Use movies and television as talking points. Discuss alcohol and drug use, how it's depicted and use those moments to better understand your teen and teach them.

If your teen feels good about themselves and has a strong sense of self, they'll be less likely to succumb to peer pressure to try harmful substances. They'll also have strong coping mechanisms in place so if they do hit a rough patch, substances won't be the first thing they reach for to help them cope.

Is there a problem?

If you've noticed your teen is showing . . .

  • personality changes
  • not getting along with their sibling(s)
  • weight loss
  • signs of spending less time with friends
  • skipping activities they used to enjoy
  • indications of neglecting their appearance

. . . these could indicate there is a mental health, physical health or substance abuse problem.

What to do

  • See your doctor. That's the first step in determining if it's a physical health concern, a mental health concern, a psychological concern or a substance abuse issue.
  • Call the Winnipeg Health Region's Centralized Intake for Youth Addictions at 958-9692 or toll free at 1-877-710-3999. Read more about the program here.
  • Call 944-6235 and make arrangements for a counsellor to do an assessment, complete with recommendations and/or referrals as appropriate.

Resources

Reading for parents

Reading for teens

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