Ask BBB: Parenting Advice from Betsy Brown Braun

QUESTION: I recently caught my 14-year-old drinking with his two best friends. They all came home from hanging out with other friends in town somewhere. I was both shocked and disappointed. My husband and I have talked to him so many times and really thought we could trust him. He gets straight A’s, volunteers twice a month at a homeless shelter and plays soccer. We grounded him for a week but he doesn’t seem remorseful in the slightest and I feel as if my words are falling on deaf ears. Betsy, what should we do? How do we get through to him?

BBB: Boy oh boy, do I ever feel for you. This is some of the stuff that makes having teenagers so hard. You try your best to anticipate all the land mines and make your expectations clear, and then life happens.

Yours is a big question about which I could go on and on, discussing the effects of underage drinking, addiction, lying, trust and all sorts of related and critical topics. Instead, I will address your question as succinctly as I can. But please know that there is much more to this issue than this column has space.

I urge you to visit the Partnership for a Drug Free America and other sites that have a tremendous amount of information on the topic.

While your son sounds like he has been an on-track kid, I don’t know anything about you and your family and the context for his behavior. And there are no one-size-fits-all answers here. For example, is this his first venture to the dark side? Has he been dishonest with you about other things? Who are his friends?

I can promise you that more parents of teens than you can possibly imagine are experiencing the same issues. And, unfortunately, a dalliance with alcohol is not an uncommon happening with young teens.

More than half of American youths ages 12 to 20 have tried alcohol, according to www.HelpGuide.org. This is not to say that I condone underage drinking at all. Rather, as horrified as you might be, I am not surprised.

My guess is that your words of caution are not really “falling on deaf ears.” The fact that he was dishonest about it tells you that he does know very well how you feel. Your son absorbs all your reactions, everything you do and say. You just may not be seeing it.

I hope that you have been sharing and modeling your views on drinking (and other risky behaviors) throughout your son’s growing years. In other words, this might not be just about your parenting.

As you undoubtedly know, teens try their wings at all kinds of “forbidden” things. And just like when they were toddlers, too often they learn what they can’t do, by doing it.

On top of that, the very part of the teen brain that tells him “This is a bad idea,”—the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control and executive decision making—is the last part of his body to finish growing.

This is at the same time that his desire and capacity for pleasure are increasing dramatically. So, were you to ask him what he was thinking when he went drinking with his buddies, his answer would have to be, “I wasn’t.” There is a developmental aspect to his behavior.

As disappointed and angry as you might be, neither being too reactive and punitive nor being too understanding is the best idea, but both are necessary and must not be too wimpy or too over the top.  It is not about slapping your child into learning. I promise you that won’t work and will actually sabotage your efforts.

Talk to your son about this incident calmly, openly and honestly and without judgment or criticism of him. Your tone is vitally important. Choose a time to talk when neither of you is emotionally elevated and certainly not at the time of your discovery. Often postponing the discussion is powerful, as the child squirms imagining what will happen.

Be sure to do more listening than talking. Ask a lot of questions in a curious, not leading way. This is not a lecture. You want to be on the same team and not in an adversarial position. And the conversation may have a few incarnations.

You need to find out what is going on with your son. Is he having social issues or anxieties? What are his concerns? Try to find out what actually led up to the drinking. And finally, what is your son’s view on alcohol, and is the information he has accurate?

Keep in mind that peer relationships dominate this age group. They also contribute to a child’s willingness to experiment with alcohol, drugs and risky behaviors. Without judgment, it is important to find out what goes on with his friends. He is absolutely ripe for peer pressure. And there are plenty of lessons therein.

Together with your son, you need to think through what he wants for himself in the immediate picture (not in life), what situations are hard or risky for him and how he might manage these.

Be sure to have thoroughly done your homework on the topic at hand, no shooting from the hip, and certainly avoid talking in catastrophic terms.

In this case make sure you are well informed about all aspects of underage drinking as well as the real effects of alcohol on young people. Then share with your son what you are worried about and why.

Let me add that at some point you need to have the “trust” conversation. Your son needs to realize how much he needs you to trust him, as there soon will be many “permissions” he will want. Without your trust, they will not happen.

There definitely needs to be an immediate, firm, meaningful consequence for the choice he made to drink. But grounding him for a week? Really? That is no big deal. Had he shown great remorse and guilt, you might have imposed no consequence at all, by the way.

Ask your son what he thinks should be the consequence from which he might learn and remember the next time he is tempted, letting him know you will take his ideas into consideration.

Later, you get to lower the boom, and a boom it should be. Perhaps he is grounded from being with his friends for a month. If he cannot make the right decision when he is with them, then he shouldn’t be with them.

When the privilege of being social is reinstated, you will need to know the details of where and with whom he will be, checking in with you with each change of venue. It takes a long time to build trust.

Your rules, consequences, and expectations must be consistent and clear. Rather than being punitively based, they must be a part of your son’s regular, day-to-day life.

In addition, you need to look beyond punishment and think about the learning. To this end, perhaps your son needs to do volunteer work for a related organization—MADD, for example, or maybe a rehabilitation or hospital venue for alcohol-related issues. If it isn’t overkill, maybe a visit to an AA meeting is in order.

And finally, dare I remind you, “Little kids, little problems?!”

Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator, and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and other professionals.  She is the award-winning author of the bestselling, “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” Betsy has been featured on the Today Show, The Early Show and Good Morning America and has been cited in Parents Magazine, Twins Magazine, Family Circle and many more.  Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have five grandchildren, so far.