What to Do When Your Child Gets in Trouble With Alcohol

As parents, our worst fears concern anything bad happening to one of our children. We try to shield and protect them as best as possible from all the terrible things in the world, but no matter how hard we try, we can’t be everywhere at all times. For many parents, when the dreaded call comes from the police or school officials that their child is in trouble with alcohol, the news is not only devastating, but they also don’t know what to do. Here are some pointers that may help.

Don’t Panic

If this is the first time your child has experienced a problem with alcohol, don’t panic. If you’ve maintained an open line of communication with your child, he or she knows that alcohol use is not permitted. So, this could simply be a moment of temporary abandonment of the family values or an infraction of the established rules of behavior. While this is not insignificant, it doesn’t mean that your child is destined for a life of crime or heading down the path of addiction – not yet, at least. So, while you needn’t panic, you do need to take action. Things can’t just continue in the family as if nothing happened. There are consequences for bad behavior, and this fact needs to be clearly expressed to your child.

Find Out the Facts

Naturally, you’ll need to find out all the facts. Gather any paperwork, reports and eye-witness accounts of what happened during the incident. If it was an alcohol-related traffic incident, there will be a police report. There may also be eyewitnesses who have given statements. If it is a school-related problem, you will need to interview the appropriate school principal, teachers, classmates or others who can give you information. Get as much factual material together as you can.

Next, you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with your child. Be prepared for some denial, evasiveness, perhaps a bit of fear, anger, or comments that it’s “not that big a deal.” Try to ascertain the reasoning behind the action. Did he or she just get in a situation that was over their head? Was it a case of peer pressure to drink that they gave into? Did someone else spike their soda with alcohol? Was it a dare?

Pay attention to any other contributing factors that may not have been evident prior to the incident. How are your child’s grades and performance in sports or extracurricular activities? Has your child been depressed lately, or anxious, fidgety, unable to sleep, feeling inadequate, lonely or bullied? Has he or she been fighting with your other children? Have you noticed your child is no longer hanging out with certain friends or engaging in activities they formerly found pleasurable?

Once you have all the facts and have talked with your child, you need to take the appropriate action with respect to the degree of trouble your child is in. Of course, if this is not the first time your child has gotten in trouble with alcohol, your course of action may be considerably different.

Immediate Steps

Depending on the severity of the infraction, your child may be suspended from school, need legal representation for court appearances, may be hospitalized for alcohol intoxication, or may require treatment for alcohol abuse. First-time offenders usually are not dealt with as seriously as repeat offenders, but some states have been stepping up enforcement of underage drinking and driving, so it really depends on where you live and how serious the problem is. Similarly, many schools have instituted a zero-tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. It pays to know where your child’s school stands on these issues. Hopefully, you already know this, but if you don’t, now’s the time to find out.

Having amassed all the facts and with a good knowledge of the consequences of your child’s actions, you now need to sit down with your child and have a serious discussion about the ramifications. Whatever punishment you deem appropriate needs to be enforced. Do not make any idle threats, no matter how disappointed or angry you are. In fact, do not even have this discussion with your child until you are sufficiently calmed and can approach the matter in a level-headed manner. It is also extremely important that both parents participate in this conversation and be in agreement on the course of action to take. In the case of a single parent, the presence of another adult family member is recommended.

Something has to be taken away. Whether this something is freedom, as in grounding your child for some period of time, or no friends in, no television, no videogames, loss of cell phone privileges, or something else, make it something that is meaningful. It has to be something that your child values and will feel a sense of loss when it has been temporarily taken away. In fact, you should acknowledge that you know this is important to your child, but so is adhering to the family rules. Breaking the rules has consequences, and this is one of those consequences. Tell your child that you are willing to reinstate some of the privileges you’re taking away when your child is able to demonstrate that he or she has learned from their mistake and has regained your confidence in their determination to abide by the family rules.

How To Talk With Your Child

Be careful about tone of voice. Be as loving as possible, but remain firm. In addition, here are some other tips about how to talk with your child.

• Pick the right time. In order for the conversation to be effective, you need to pick the right time to hold it, say the experts. Make sure that your child is sober, not coming off a hangover or still drunk. In addition, it’s important that your child is not agitated, extremely upset, or angry.

• Express your love and concern. Before you begin with the difficult topic, the first words out of your mouth need to be about how you love your child and are very concerned about his or her welfare. That’s why you’re having this discussion. Be prepared for the fact that your child may not acknowledge this love, or may act as if it is irrelevant. This is their fear and denial asserting itself.

• Point out responsibilities. Again, experts say that it is important here to point out that while it is the child’s responsibility to grow up, it is the parents’ responsibility to make sure the child has a safe environment in which to grow up.

• Bring up warning signs you’ve observed. Beyond the alcohol-related incident that landed your child in trouble, bring up any warning signs that you have observed. Be as neutral and non-judgmental as possible when stating these, however, and say things like, “This problem needs our attention and support, perhaps even professional help, because it can get out of hand.” Mention any negative effects your child’s alcohol use has had on you and others in the family, particularly other children.

• Listen to what your child has to say. In the spirit of open communication, listen to whatever your child has to say. Some of the comments may be related to other topics and not the issue at hand. Hear him or her out and then promise to address those concerns at another time. But now is the time to deal with the issue of alcohol use. Do not be distracted by the other issues, since alcohol use may be at the core of some of those problems.

• Use motivational interviewing techniques. Clinicians use a type of interviewing technique known as motivational interviewing. Borrow a page from their playbook by encouraging your child to talk about what he or she wants their life to be like: at school, with friends, family, afterschool job or extracurricular activities, etc. Then ask how things are going at the present time in each of these areas. Really listen to the responses to these questions.

• Have them draw the line between the two. After your child has expressed desires and how things are currently going, ask them to draw the line between the two. How is the alcohol use detracting from the goals? Where it doesn’t match up is the area where you want your child to be able to recognize the dissonance and have the opportunity to correct their patterns of behavior. Teens especially want to feel that they have the power to make the right decisions. Given the direction and appropriate opportunity, most do make the right ones. Your child needs that chance to be able to do so.

• Ask your child to reassess the problem. Now that you’ve come this far in the discussion, ask your child to reconsider the problem. What does he or she think could best be done to address the issue of alcohol? Together, work out a plan for getting to the next steps, which may include education about alcohol and addiction, and counseling.

• Reiterate your love. Conclude the discussion by reiterating your love and promising to work together with your child to get the help he or she needs. By expressing your love and concern and letting him or her know that they’re not alone, you are helping bulwark your child’s willingness to move forward. They’ve made a mistake, true, but you are not withdrawing your love and you will get through this together.

What About Counseling?

Many schools have programs offering health education classes to students that include content on drug and alcohol abuse. The Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program provides financial assistance for drug and violence prevention activities and activities that promote the health and safety of students in elementary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher learning.

You need to get your son or daughter to talk with someone about their alcohol use. This should be a health care professional who is knowledgeable about the problem and can help counsel your child. You could select a child psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in treating clients with alcohol or drug problems. The counselor will utilize individual and possibly group meetings and may recommend that your child participate in 12-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (for teens, not general adult population).

What to Look For in Counseling or Treatment Programs

If you decide to seek counseling or treatment for your child who has had a problem with alcohol, consider asking the following questions:

• Why is this program/counseling the best for my child? How does it compare with other treatments or services that may be available?

• What are the program’s credentials or licensing? Is it specially designed and appropriate for teens?

• What are the credentials and licensing of the treatment professionals? Does the team include experts in physical and mental health as well as substance abuse treatment?

• What is the program’s philosophy on 12-steps, abstinence, medications, therapy approaches, and recovery?

• Does my child have other problems (beyond alcohol abuse)? How will these be addressed in the treatment program?

• To what extent will our family be involved in the treatment program? Is aftercare or continuing care programs included as part of the overall treatment plan?

• How much does treatment cost? Does my insurance cover any portion of it?

• What length of time does the treatment generally take?

• If my child shows improvement, is there a reassessment of needs or a stepping-down of the treatment program to accommodate this progress?

• How will my child’s education continue while he or she is in treatment?

Early Intervention Pays Off

The earlier you address the situation of your child’s problem with alcohol, the better. Seeking help to identify underlying causes, how to spot and deal with triggers, how to resist peer pressure, and learning healthier behaviors is key to preventing alcohol use from becoming abuse and addiction.

Recognize that young people are bound to experiment, to test limits, and to sometimes push beyond boundaries. When your child gets in trouble with alcohol, it isn’t the end of the world. While some of this is a natural part of growing up, the family rules and boundaries of expected behavior must be respected. Through it all, surround your child with your love and caring concern. Express in clear and loving fashion that you will be there for them, and encourage them to grow to their full potential – and you won’t take no for an answer. In fact, that’s what being a family is about.