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Is My Child Drinking Behind My Back?

teen party

Q. My 15-year-old son recently made the varsity baseball team. Ever since, he has been hanging around with an older group of boys who stay out late on the weekends. We've given him an 11:00 p.m. curfew, and he had been respecting it until this past Saturday when he didn't get home until 1:00 a.m. He said he simply lost track of time and had a hard time getting someone to drive him home since everyone else had later curfews. I am concerned he might be partying with this older crowd. How should I approach this topic with him?

A. When your son sits down at the kitchen table to eat, sit with him. If you feel his mood is receptive, open up the topic by stating your concerns and expectations. Say to him what you've asked in your question. Do so by creating your own version of the following, "I'm so proud that at 15 years you're on the varsity baseball team. Since making the team, however, I've noticed you're hanging around an older group of boys and staying out late on weekends. You have an 11:00 curfew, yet you stay out later sometimes. One night you didn't come home until 1 a.m. I fear you're drinking."

Continue by expressing empathy and stating a rule, "I know that it's important for you to be accepted by your teammates, but in this family, underage drinking is not okay." With care and concern, articulate your fears: "I fear that you'll get caught and lose your position on the team, become addicted to alcohol, or be in a drunk-driving car accident. Your plans for the future could disappear."

Give him time to respond but don't expect him to be gracious. He may blow up, he may stomp off in a huff, he may roll his eyes and tell you how ridiculous you're being, or he may deny any such behavior. How he responds is not of consequence. You need to say what's on your mind and let him know that you're keeping an eye on him.

In addition, let him know that he can refuse a beer while staying friendly to the person who offered it. Also, tell him that you're more than willing to pick him up and bring him home if he doesn't have a ride. You might, however, extend his weekend curfew to midnight, telling him that he is allowed to stay out later with the team but that you expect he won't be drinking alcohol. It's hard to be the youngest, and the first to leave a party. Saying "no" to alcohol is enough of a challenge.

Even though talking to him about what's on your mind is tough, it's your parental responsibility to do so. If something untoward occurred relating to your fears and you said nothing, you would never forgive yourself. Many parents today have lost their courage to address the hard topics -- drugs, alcohol, and sex -- with their kids. Don't allow yourself to fall into this category.

After your conversation with your son, at the end of the day or the next morning, tell him that your concerns are out of your love for him, not your need to control him. If you keep an open dialogue with your son about this topic, he's more likely to act responsibly when it counts.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in The Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, October 2004.