Many times on the parent coaching team, we hear from parents who say something like this: “My teen went out with friends last night. I think they were drinking, but I’m not sure. What kind of consequence can I give my child to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?”
When I get calls like this, I hear the concern and love these parents have for their children, wanting to protect them from any harm which may occur while their teen is under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I also hear the anger and frustration at the fact that their child is possibly disobeying their rules about underage drinking. There is also uncertainty on how to deal with this, as the parent does not know for sure what happened the night before.
The most helpful thing you can do as a parent is to get all the facts. Although it is easy to react out of that fear and frustration, you can do harm to your relationship if you accuse your child of wrongdoing without concrete proof. Rather than going with your gut feeling of “I just know that he was up to something!” look at what is happening to cause those feelings. Is he acting in unusual ways? Does he smell like alcohol? Was he not answering his cell phone when you called? You can also try talking with the parents of the other kids to find out what happened.
Once you have the information, we recommend talking with your teen in a direct, non-confrontational manner. For example, you might say, “I am concerned that something may have gone on last night when you went out with your friends. When you came home today, your eyes were bloodshot, and Joe’s mom said you weren’t there last night and you told me you were. What is going on?” Give your child a chance to give his side of the story.
When your child is telling his side, we recommend just taking the time to listen. Don’t interrupt your child or accuse him of lying. While this is a very emotional situation, accusations and blaming will not help your relationship with your child. You can then take the opportunity to restate what your family rules and expectations are. For example, “It is illegal to drink before you are 21, and it is against our house rules for you to do so.” This leads into doing some problem solving as well: “What are you going to do if you are out with your friends and someone offers you a beer?”
If you do discover that your teen was drinking, we recommend holding him accountable for his actions. (For ideas on how to do this, check out all our articles here) You can also hold your child accountable for other actions he may have taken, such as being late for curfew, or not being where he told you he would be. While we do not recommend giving consequences if you do not have proof that your teen was doing anything wrong, you can watch your child’s behavior more closely and follow up with him as needed. We also recommend letting your child know what the consequences will be if you discover that he has been drinking. Although it is hard to be in this uncertain situation, it is preferable to the damage and resentment that accusations without proof can cause.
Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated EmpoweringParents Parent Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.