I caught my teen drinking. Now what?

Parenting teens is terrifying sometimes. It can make us long for the days when our kids were little and we actually had some control over keeping them safe. Teenage drinking is one of those areas we wish we could make the decisions for our kids, but we can’t. As a family therapist and parent coach, I often see parents catch their kid drinking and respond with anger and removal of the kid’s phone.

I’d like to throw some other options into the hopper for consideration, especially for younger teens.

It doesn’t take much learning about the developing brain to really motivate a parent to take a strong stance to keep young teens from bathing their brains with addictive substances. Drugs and alcohol, especially when started young, are hard on their happiness, their mental health, and their long-term ability to manage emotions and sense of well-being. This webinar called “Your Teen’s Brain and the Link to Risky Behavior,” presented by Operationparent.org is fabulous. If you can get your kid to watch it with you, please do. You can also find a webinar in the same series by yours truly called “Bridge the Gap Between Parents and Teen: How to Keep Tweens and Teens Talking to Us.”

Here is a text chat I had with a mom the morning after she caught her 13-year-old drinking:

Mom: Good morning. I have an issue, not sure if it is an emergency but I am struggling. D (13) had some friends over last night. Even though they are only 13/14, I went down to check on them. They were drinking! They found some previously stashed White Claws (thanks to my older kid) tucked in the arms of the basement recliners – I guess I have to turn over every rock and branch. I sent the kids home and listened to D tell me how sorry she was.

She knew I was angry but I didn’t yell. I was proud of myself! Now I need help with consequences and following through. I have her phone and iPad for now and told her I was not sure of the consequence yet. She is working me, saying that the only thing that keeps her going is talking to her friends on the phone. I have been thinking about this since 4 a.m.

Kerry: Goooooood job!!!! Yay you for checking on them!!!! And you stayed calm!!!??? Woohoo!! What ideas have you come up with for a consequence?

Mom: I was thinking of no electronics today (and maybe tomorrow) or seeing friends or helping me with yard work. I don’t know how to handle her telling me she is more depressed than ever. I know she wanted to see her friends today but I think that is a no. The only things of consequence to her are her phone and friends.

Kerry: If you need strength or reinforcement, watch this on “your teen’s brain and the link to risky behavior.” It will help your resolve to be firm.

Mom: Ok. I am worried that my consequences are either too much or too little.

Kerry: Don’t sweat being in a hurry. Take your time and figure it out. Have her watch this webinar with you. It can be one part of the consequence…. To get more information about alcohol on her developing brain.

For any consequence you come up with, tell me how it will help her LEARN.
 It’s not about suffering, it’s about learning. And also tell me how you can deliver with empathy and connection.

It’s ok if she is in limbo ALL DAY, with you saying you are working on how to help her learn the importance of protecting her brain and the risks of texting being her only source of self-soothing. Keep reassuring her that you are committed to helping her find ways to take good care of herself and make decisions that keep her safe. 

Mom: Ok. I love all of that. Thank you so much. She is up and arguing her case again (she really should be a lawyer) and I told her I don’t know yet but I still have her phone and iPad and I am figuring it out. Now I will work on how her consequences make her learn.

Kerry: Just be empathetic for right now. Of course this is stressful for her. You love her too much to let her head down this path of putting addictive chemicals in her brain. You love her enough to help her learn. Etc.

Maybe you can start now by watching the webinar together…. That will check off one of her requirements while you work on ideas for her consequence. She sounds motivated right now.

Mom: Yes, she is. Thank you so much!

Kerry: Thoughts to ponder…. Can you call a meeting with the parents of the other kids? Band together, hear how the other parents think about their kids’ drinking, agree to check on the kids when they’re over at each other’s houses, keep each other informed, and not deal with this challenge in solitude or secrecy. Be a village navigating these kids through their adolescence. It’s good for community-building. It can increase other parents’ sense of care for the other kids if people are on the same page.

Another thought: you and she could make a list of non-drinking ways to have fun with her friends.
 One of the skills for her to learn is how to have fun without drinking. And how to get through uncomfortable feelings without alcohol or cutting. Then if you have a parents’ meeting, you can invite them to help these middle schoolers find more constructive activities than just hanging out in the basement and drinking.

Mom: I’ll stop texting you. I am good, I feel like I have a plan, however hard to implement.

Reflections from Kerry:

A couple more ideas this mom can ponder are:

The Interview Consequence
, having her daughter set up three face-to-face interviews with caring adults to help her learn. Not to shame or blame, but to help her learn. Her three interviews can be with:

1. A psychotherapist
2. A physician
3. A law enforcement officer

She can ask these people 1) what they’ve learned through their careers about underage drinking and 2) what they wish she could know.

Another option can be to set up a call (probably for a fee) with my middle son, Palmer. He is in grad school for a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and works as a youth grit coach. As a teen, he was “that kid” who was intent on breaking every rule he could. He would be happy to talk to her about what he wishes he would have known when he was her age. He said he would ask a little about who she wants to be and if drinking … and its risks… line up with her goals. He’d also mention how drinking can become a long-term issue without you realizing it and the ways drinking impacts your life don’t become clear for a long time. He’d share his journey in life vs his friends who kept partying and drinking and how vastly different they’ve turned out.

I wish you well as you boldly and courageously do what it takes to create a close, connected family and be strong, loving parents to your beloved children.

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Kerry Stutzman
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