It is well-known that teenagers are in a stage of experimentation – they are exploring the world around them, the world of relationships and their own inner landscape. What feels right? What creates pleasure? What is meaningful? What relieves stress? What brings social, academic and personal success?
Somewhere along the way, most teens will encounter alcohol. Some will like what they find, indulging the substance more and more in order to gain social acceptance or psychic relief or both. Others will find that they don’t like the feeling that alcohol gives them and will move away from it toward other, healthier forms of stress relief and happiness. And some will find a small place in their lives in which to place consumption of alcoholic beverages – certain social situations like celebrations and other special gatherings. No matter what kids ultimately decide to do with alcohol, however, many will get drunk at least one time. Some will do so accidentally, simply not knowing their limits. Others will do so intentionally. No matter how it happens, however, parents have to know how to handle the situation.
Below are some tips in handling a teenager who comes home drunk:
There is such a thing as a “teaching moment.” This is a moment in which the child is calm and coherent and a moment in which the parent is also calm and coherent. When either child or parent is not fully present due to overwhelming emotions (like anger, grief or fear) or impaired consciousness (i.e. not fully awake, drunk or stoned) no learning will occur. In fact, talking to a drunken person is futile; alcohol significantly impairs comprehension and inhibition — your drunk teen doesn’t have the mental capacity to process your message, nor the ability to explain things properly. Therefore, when your child comes home drunk, wait until he or she sobers up before you try to deal with the issue. Let the child sleep it off – the best time to talk is likely to be the day after the incident.
Take the intervening time to settle your own nerves. You might be feeling alarmed, enraged, disappointed or otherwise extremely upset. Emotion, especially of an intense, hysterical or dramatic kind, will work against your goals. Remember – you shouldn’t be addressing the issue at all until you are calm enough for your child to be able to take you very seriously. This talk will be an important one – you don’t want to appear off-balance while you are trying to make important, life-impacting remarks. Staying calm, you help give your teen someone to take seriously, look up to and respect. You increase your power to provide education and guidance when you come across as a loving, concerned, firm, clear, knowledgeable and trustworthy adult. Try to get into that state before you hold a meeting with your teen!
Do call your local emergency medical information line if your child’s state concerns you. You can describe your child’s behavior in the intoxicated state and if there is a concern, an ambulance will be sent out. It’s always better to err on the side of caution – there is no reason NOT to call and describe symptoms unless the symptoms are barely noticeable. However, sometimes a child is barely conscious. Sometimes he can’t stop vomiting. Sometimes he is experiencing alcohol poisoning. Unless you already know what to look for, make the call.
Even if you think it’s kind of “cute” or funny the first time your child comes home drunk, you should consider the importance of refraining from showing any kind of pride or pleasure in this behavior. Remind yourself that teens are very easily addicted and that addiction will bring them much suffering. Their careers, their relationships and their health can suffer serious negative consequences. Their drunken state can lead to their own or someone else’s death or permanent disability. A teenager may misread your cues, thinking that you are encouraging self-destructive behavior. Be careful to respond seriously and responsibly. Your child’s future is at risk. Everything you say and do at this critical time can have a life-long impact. Refrain from helping your child avoid current consequences of this particular episode – do not cover up. Help him to learn that there CAN be negative consequences. If nothing bad happened during this episode, then make sure you discuss with him at some point, what CAN happen when a person is drunk.
Know Where You Stand
Different parents have different rules on drinking; some demand total abstinence from alcohol, others allow drinking in moderation. Regardless of where you stand on the drinking issue, it’s important you address the situation of your teen coming home intoxicated. Alcohol is an easy drug to abuse. As previously stated, it can also be a dangerous drug leading to life-threatening accidents, legal problems and health problems. You might want to do some research to find out more about alcohol, the state of intoxication, addiction and other issues so that you can talk knowledgeably to your child. Inviting your child to do research WITH you might be even better! It’s best to create rules and guidelines that make sense in the light of the information you have about alcohol – such rules are more likely to be taken seriously by your child. Rules that “make no sense” tend to be defied by older kids. If you and your child do research together, you two can also formulate reasonable guidelines.
First Time Only
If this is the first time your child has come home drunk, education is the correct intervention. Punishment should be avoided. In fact, don’t mention negative consequences at all. If it happens again, however, make a rule that there will always be severe consequences for this in the future. The first two episodes are for education only – not punishment. All other episodes require heavy negative consequences (see the 2X Rule in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe).
Seek Professional Help if Necessary
If you think your child is already abusing alcohol habitually, or is at risk of becoming an alcoholic, contract a substance abuse counselor. Alcoholism is an incurable, progressive and fatal disease – it’s best to intervene as soon as possible.