My Teen Wants to Try Alcohol—What Do I Say?

Your response can build or break your child's trust in you.

Let’s talk about tricky topics that can drive teens away.

This week’s question comes from a mom whose 15-year-old daughter wants to try alcohol. The conversation didn’t end the way the mom hoped it might.

Carol and Anne share tips to neutralize curiosity about “forbidden” topics. And they’ll show you how to empower your children to give themselves their own best advice. (That way, you don’t have to lecture.)

This week’s Parenting Practice

Next time your child brings up a topic you naturally want to counsel them about, step back from the advisory role long enough to say: Tell me more. Doing this will build trust over time. Your child will know that they can tell you anything! (This practice applies to young children, too. Listen to the episode to hear how.)

Transcript of podcast episode

Carol: I’d rather do this with you and guide you through this.

Anne: That would have shocked me.

Carol: Yeah, it would have shocked you. I would like to turn the shocking table.

Anne: Yeah, stay ahead of them.

Carol: Uh-huh, and say… Welcome to “The Child Whisperer” podcast. I’m your host Carol Tuttle author of the bestselling parenting book, “The Child Whisperer.” I’m with my co-host, Anne Tuttle Brown.

Anne: Today’s question is, “The other day my type 3 15-year-old daughter told me she would like to try alcohol. I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. While I am grateful that she feels like she can talk openly with me, she does love a reaction and she also likes to push against any boundary. I try to keep the conversation open but of course, I couldn’t help but restate the dangers of drinking mixed with our family’s addictive tendencies. We have talked with her about drugs and alcohol since she was young but she still left the conversation wishing she hadn’t told me. Any thoughts?”

Carol: My first thought is that’s pretty impressive she even told you that. She’s a 15-year-old. A type 3 child, again, is a determined child. They have a push-forward natural energy that really invokes them to wanna take on challenges and take risk and kinda get their own body learning.

Anne: Push the boundaries.

Carol: They have a physical connection to the world. So it’s kind of a joke in The Child Whisperer world is tell a type 3 child not to do something, that’s like, “Oh, yeah, I think I will.”

Anne: Not just a child, tell a type 3 adult not to do that.

Carol: Yeah. That’s true. Just a type 3 human. So I’m impressed with the fact she even opened up to you, that you should pat yourself on the back for, that there is enough open trust and feeling safe that she’d even have this conversation with you.

Anne: And it sounds like the mom was…kudos to her for wanting to be open and, you know, just talk about it. But she left the conversation wishing she hadn’t told her, so something happened that shut her down.

Carol: It kinda turned direction for her. Well, I’d be curious, say, as a parent that…you know, how did you react? And you were…in your explanation, you tried to manage that. So it was like, “Oh.” You know, like trying to stay chill about the whole thing. I would wanna know the motive. Why? Without judging it to just say, “Well, that’s interesting. Why do you wanna experiment with it?” I’d wanna learn her motive, because is the motive, “Well all my friends are trying it?” And so there’s this need for a 15-year-old to feel like they fit into their peer group, that is the biggest need.

I teach you this in The Child Whisperer, that there are several stages of development between age 12 to 18 that focus of the developmental stages, social acceptance, fitting in with my peers, gaining connections, networks outside my family system. And I’d wanna know if the motive was, “Well, I wanna fit in. My friends are doing this. And so I wanna join the crowd basically.” Or is she just really curious about the effects of alcohol biologically in her system?

Anne: Or what does it taste like?

Carol: Yeah, what does it taste like? I’m curious. But she’s been introduced or something is showing up in her world that’s got her attention, what’s the motive? What’s the why behind her curiosity, her interest in this? From what you’ve sent to us, I don’t know if you achieved that, but that would be in a teenager’s experience, I’d want to know the driving motive.

Anne: It seems like, from what we…obviously, we don’t know the whole conversation, but she tried to be open but couldn’t help but restate the dangers of drinking mixed with her family’s addictive tendencies. So there definitely was some advice, some lecture tone given.

Carol: That’s a tough one to like stop yourself. You feel as the parent, you need to be advising your child in any high-risk scenario, and giving them feedback, and counseling, and of course, that’s your role to guide, to counsel. That’s important, the timing of that. A child will not be as open if they’re met with advice constantly or counsel and being kinda preached to for the fact that trust is built by being heard. When you feel you’re being heard, when you feel you’re being understood, you’re more willing to be open about how you feel about things. And if it’s countered constantly, there’s not enough time given to being heard, to being listened to. Let’s say you have a 15-minute conversation and there was one to two minutes of being heard, and the next 12 to 13, you know, the next were being lectured, being talked to, being counseled.

Anne: Rolling your eyes on that one as a kid. Well, here it says, “I couldn’t help but restate.” So this lecture has been given, she’s been taught again, so she’s probably thinking…

Carol: Maybe you’ve created her curiosity by the frequent conversation of this.

Anne: Maybe she’s thinking, “Well, okay if there’s a family addictive tendencies, well I’m gonna prove that I don’t have that.” That’s maybe going a little bit too far but does she have a pattern to want to alarm you? What’s her history of saying, “Hey, mom, I wanna do this at age three” or climbing the cupboards, you know?

Carol: Yeah. If you’ve had frequent conversations about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, you’ve made drugs and alcohol a really big deal in your conversations. These are the spaces that I tried to neutralize with when you were teenagers and make it a not such a big deal because the alarm factor because they figure the more energy you put on something, whether positive or negative, you’re putting energy on it.

Anne: You get curious.

Carol: You’re giving it attention, you’re giving it life, you’re giving it a presence in your realm.

Anne: So if I was 15 and I came to you and I said, “Mom, I wanna try alcohol.” How would you have responded? Or how would you respond now?

Carol: I would say…I think I would have done this when you were 15 knowing me because I actually did it with some other things. I would have said…I really would have hoped I would have gotten to the why, you know, “Tell me more. Why do you want to?” I’d be curious about that. I might have said, “Well, were you interested in cocktails, wine? What’s your choice of alcohol? Were you going for the buzz, full on slammed?” I grew up with a lot of alcohol around me. I have a background having grown up in Northern California outside of San Francisco and Berkeley. I was in an alcohol culture as a teenager, it was very common, the norm that you would go get drunk on the weekend.

Anne: And as a type 3 teenager, were you curious to try it?

Carol: No. Actually, there was so much of it, it put me on the other camp too just, you know, I don’t see the need and because of my own religious position and values that, you know, I didn’t wanna have to go make some confession. It was like, “Ugh, I know I’m gonna regret this. I’m gonna feel guilty.” I kinda saw the bigger picture, and I didn’t feel the need to do it just to fit in. I went to numerous fraternity parties my senior year in Berkeley, at UC Berkeley, where the whole theme of the party were kegger parties. You’d pay $5 to $10, they’d hand you a cup. I was the designated driver. So see alcohol was a big exposure of my youth.

Anne: And you chose it, you didn’t have your mom telling you…

Carol: No. And I don’t even know if they knew I was at kegger parties quite honestly. But I had to make choices on my own what did I want. My parents didn’t feel they had…you know, my parents weren’t the kind of…they just weren’t dialed into that, the kind of intimate part of your life.

Anne: Well, I think that’s the advantage now, parents are more willing to talk about it and be…

Carol: Yeah. With that background, I probably would have said, you know, “Let’s do it together. I’d rather do this with you and guide you through this.”

Anne: That would have shocked me.

Carol: Yeah, it would have shocked you. I would like to turn the shocking table.

Anne: Yeah. Stay out of them.

Carol: Uh-huh, and say, “If this is something you’re really serious about, then let’s explore it. I’d rather be with you.” And I wanna dispel that sorta, “I’ve gotta sneak around” feeling as well, and if was there any drive being a type 3 teenager in this case that I’m gonna, you know, provoke my parents. The less I show at being provoked, the more that doesn’t work. I mean, your dad did something with cigarettes that was similar.

Anne: Yeah. When I was about four or five, we were taking a family walk and he picked up a cigarette butt off the floor and said, “Anyone wanna try it?” It was so gross because it’d been like run over.

Carol: Somebody had smoked it.

Anne: Yeah, obviously. It’s like a used cigarette on the ground, who knows how long. And so it just like really portrayed like the grossness of it, and he was like, “Here, anybody?” And I was like, “No. Dad, what are you doing?” And it just was…I think it was neat for me to like, “Okay.” It’s neutralizing it like you said.

Carol: Right. We’re not encouraging smoking, or drinking, or any of that, it’s like we’re trying to make it something that’s if you really are going for this option, I’m not gonna try and keep it so far out of your realm of experience. And like I would rather support your own exploration of this world, and you’re more likely to dispel any curiosity.

Anne: Yeah. I think the mystery of not talking about it and keeping it so bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. And these things obviously are not good for you. But if you talk about it as a parent from a more neutral ground and say, “This is my experience,” and share that with them, that there’s more chance that they’re not gonna go into it from the curiosity standpoint.

Carol: Well the majority of people that are using alcohol that maybe they are into wine, or they have social drinking, or they manage it with balance. We don’t…

Anne: But at 15 years old, it’s against the law frankly.

Carol: Correct. I’d say, “Well, I might have to turn you in.” But what I’m saying is…what I wanted for you children is to recognize there’s diversity in this world. And there’s people that do things different than us, we don’t drink, but there’s a lot of people that do drink and they manage it, and they’re good people, and it’s just part of their value and lifestyle choices. And so I wanted you to accept that as that’s correct for other people. That may not be what we’re choosing, but I don’t have to make it this extreme thing that I have to stay away from. I think my background really dispelled the sort of mysteriousness of it all. I saw the misuse of it quite heavily. You know, when you’ve got friends literally getting slammed at frat parties and you’re the designated driver, it lost its…

Anne: Glam?

Carol: Yeah. Like, “I don’t really wanna do that to myself.” And quite honestly, on a health level, it’s not that healthy.

Anne: So moving aside from the alcohol, and for parents of toddlers in any sort of situation, let’s talk about going into that advisory role, as parents often do.

Carol: Yeah. That’s really the answer to the question here is, you had an opportunity and it’s a lot of biting your tongue, zipping your lip and just saying, “Tell me more. You can talk to me about anything.” What if you had not done any advisory feedback in that entire conversation? Where would that have left things so that your daughter is now set up to come to you again? What if you invited them to be the adviser to themselves? At 15, wouldn’t that be remarkable to stage questions and present the conversation in a way that says, “Well, what do you think is best for you?” Ultimately, in the bigger picture of things, you know, where you think this…what’s the benefit? What’s the value? What if you could turn that into them giving themselves their own counsel?

Anne: I like how you said go there with them. Even with my five-year-old, there have been times where she’ll have an idea and it’s like totally out in left field and I’ll be tempted to be like, “Well that won’t work because of this and this and this.” Then I’m just like, “Okay, well what would do? Tell me more.” Like, let’s go there just in our imaginations and experience that, and it often dispels just by keeping it open and then just keeping my mouth shut.

Carol: And you’re in a situation where you have five-year-old type 3 daughter who’s interested in things beyond her kind of appropriateness.

Anne: Here’s a great example, she…

Carol: It’s not alcohol, but she’s interested in trying things.

Anne: She likes makeup, she loves makeup and for a period there, she’d love to draw on herself, and she would often say, “I’m gonna get a tattoo.”

Carol: Yeah. She’s really drawn to tattoos.

Anne: And rather than being like, “Well because you don’t wanna get a tattoo because you don’t know how you wanna have…” Like, I’d just be like…I just didn’t even say anything. I’m like, she’s four years old. We don’t need to go there right now. Like, let her…she’d draw on herself with the dry erase markers, they’d wash off easily, she was just expressing her art. And so I just…and she doesn’t bring it up anymore. And when she’s 15, I feel like that pattern of just like being able to not be lectured at, she’s just gonna be able to share her ideas and they’ll change. She’s a type 3, she’ll change her mind quickly.

Carol: If you had made that a taboo thing and like, “Oh, no, no, no, no.” That’s gonna pique her curiosity and actually…

Anne: Yeah. And then she’ll see other people with tattoos, in her four-year-old mind, think, “That’s this and this and that’s wrong,” you know. And so from my perspective just…

Carol: Or I don’t know why that’s wrong, I want that. To me there’s not a right and wrong to a tattoo, that’s just her personal decision.

Anne: Right. But at four years old, I mean I could have given her the lecture, “Well, I don’t want you to do that.” I just told her, “Tattoos hurt.” And then just, yeah, just kinda let her do her thing.

Carol: Yeah. I wanna make it clear that we’re not pro or con on tatt, but we’re talking about a scenario with a young child that was interested in something you could have easily taken this position of lecture advice, and we don’t do that, and you shouldn’t want that. So this week’s practice is when your child comes to you and they start to talk about something in their world that maybe you feel you need to counsel, give guidance, give feedback. What if you were to just say, “Tell me more.” And choose not to play the advisory role. With the bigger vision goal of being, “I’m doing this so my child knows I will listen, I will hear, I will understand.” Because in that art of understanding all you’re saying is, “So this is how you feel about it? Oh, that’s interesting. So your experience with this is…”

Anne: Restate what they have shared with you.

Carol: Yeah, it’s just called empathic listening. It’s just restating what you’re hearing, and saying, “Thanks for sharing all that. You know, you can talk to me about anything.” Now you’re building trust because when you get to the tough subjects, there’s gonna be trust, that foundation built. What an opportunity this week to enroll this practice of listening so your child feels heard and understood, and there is trust built.

Thanks for listening. For more support, go to thechildwhisperer.com where you can purchase the book, subscribe to our weekly parenting practice email, and find the transcription and audio of The Child Whisperer podcast.

Anne: If you’re listening on iTunes, thank you for leaving a review. If you have a parenting question, please send it to [email protected].

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