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How to talk to your teen about drinking and driving

June 12, 2015

When it comes to parenting, some safety lessons we impart to our kids are simple. Look both ways before you cross the street. Don’t play with matches. Never put anything into an electrical socket. These things are black and white, clear as day. It would be nice if things stayed this easy, but they don’t. We all know that as our kids grow, teaching about safety becomes more complicated.

As our kids become teenagers, we find ourselves inundated with a laundry list of lessons that must be shared: internet use, dating, bullying, sexual safety, just to name a few, and none of them are simple! Included on that “need to discuss list” is drinking and driving. Recently, I read an article that talked about some concerning findings regarding teens, drinking, and driving (see links to articles and studies below). Through research, it was found that teens that have ridden with an alcohol-impaired driver are more likely to drink and drive themselves. This is, of course, concerning for any parent, because no one would want their child to be riding in a car with a driver that has had too much to drink, or to be the one behind the wheel after having had too much themselves.

So, how do we raise our kids to keep themselves out of situations like these?

It’s not easy. Many teens are just itching to explore and rebel a little bit. Even the best behaved adolescent may be curious about how alcohol tastes or what it feels like to have a drink. It’s also normal for most teens to be at least a little risky and impulsive from time to time. It’s just where their brains are, developmentally speaking. However, there are things that can be said and ideas that can be tried, and it’s never too early to start. Here are some thoughts on empowering our kids to take ownership of their safety:

Teach them that they are valuable

As a counselor, it’s not unusual for me to ask a teen to list positive qualities about themselves and have them look at me and shrug. Some kids don’t have anything to say when I ask them, “Who are you important to?”. It’s sad, but true. Take the time and make the effort to let them know how much you love them, how much they matter to you, and how their safety is of utmost importance to you. I know, some people aren’t the mushy type, and having a talk like that might seem awkward or uncomfortable (especially with a teen who might not be receptive to hearing it!). However, having an ongoing dialogue like this with your child will work wonders for their self-esteem and self-worth. When they believe in themselves and know how much you love and care about them, they will be more likely to treat themselves with respect. When they respect themselves, they are more likely to make decisions that are safer, healthier, and smarter.

Set the example

We often hear about how little ones are listening and watching everything we do and say as parents, but guess what? Teens are, too! Be mindful of your own behaviors and make adjustments as needed. Studies show that kids that grow up in a home where alcohol is consumed regularly or provided to teens (i.e. the “I’d rather have them drink at home” mentality) are more likely to become drinkers themselves. The more frequently the drinking is occurring, the higher the chances of impaired judgment (such as riding with someone who has had too much, or driving while intoxicated).

Know who their friends are

Pay attention to who your teen spends their time with. Get to know their families. A teen’s social circle is very important to them. Peers can have a lot of influence on kids, good or bad. There is an incredible value placed on friendships, which is normal. Many adolescents may seek out others with common interests or philosophies on life, whether that’s baseball or being a vegetarian! Encourage friendships that enhance your child’s life, not negatively impact it.

Safety versus “getting in trouble”

Many parents teach their children that if they get into a risky situation, no matter what, that child can call their parent and ask for help. The parent will come to their aid because they would rather see their child safe and with them, than figuring out the next step on their own. Maybe they drank too much, they went somewhere without permission, or the friend that drove them somewhere is suddenly nowhere to be found. My feelings on this is that it is alright to do this, but that calling for help is also not a “Get out of Jail Free” card. There may still be consequences to be faced, depending on the situation.

Saying No

How do we help our kids figure out how to get themselves out of a potentially dangerous situation without causing them to feel embarrassed or alone? There’s no easy answer here, but teaching and supporting our teens to make smarter choices, regardless of what friends do or say will be helpful. Teach them to recognize the signs that someone has had too much and come up with what to say and how to deal with it. A teen may want to be direct and tell them they don’t want to ride with them or that they shouldn’t be driving themselves. They may choose to enlist the support from other friends in talking to that person. There may be concerns about being teased or made fun of, so as a parent, recognize that this could be difficult. Focus on supporting them and building up their self esteem so that when a situation like this arises, they will feel equipped to face it. No matter what, their safety is more important than someone’s opinion of them.

Teach your teens to “own it”

Their life is theirs. Their choices are theirs. As adolescents, they get to really start to experience that and “take the car out for a test drive,” so to speak. It’s time to give them some freedom to get out there, but at the same time, help them to understand that choosing to drink puts them and others at risk for all sorts of danger. It’s not just about mom or dad being annoying or trying to control them. This is about them learning to accept responsibility for themselves and their actions. Alcohol impairs our decision-making abilities and ability to safely perform tasks. Teens need to understand the inherent risks in drinking and driving, and not simply to scare them. They need to understand that it is dangerous and that they and those around them are important and their lives are valuable. Their safety should be the most important thing to them.

A son or daughter drinking and driving, or riding with someone who is drunk is every parent’s worst nightmare. Let’s teach our kids that not only does it risk their life, but others’ lives, too. Let’s not only teach our teens, but also, let our love for them show so that they know that we want them, their friends, and everyone else on the road to be safe.


Association Between Riding With an Impaired Driver and Driving While Impaired


Parental drinking habits influence those of their children


Myths Debunked: Underage Drinking of Alcohol at Home Leads to Real Consequences for Both Parents and Teens