Disclaimer: This article does not in any way condone underage drinking – it’s against the law. Our intent is to encourage youth leaders and parents to start the conversation about alcohol with their students.
HOW TO TALK WITH TEENAGERS ABOUT ALCOHOL
Written by Aaron Helman
Another day, another twelve teen-related alcohol deaths among underage drinkers the United States of America.
It keeps on happening and it keeps on happening and it keeps on happening. All because teenagers are surrounded by a temptation that they are not equipped to resist.
There’s something we can do to help.
WHY DO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT ALCOHOL WITH OUR TEENAGERS?
Like it or not, your students are performing perceptions about the world around them. Those perceptions come from their peers and their parents, from culture and from the Church.
If the Church isn’t going to help shape students’ understanding of alcohol, culture will be happy to do it for them, spending more than $2 billion dollars annually on advertisements.
And what do those advertisements try to tell students? That alcohol is delicious and that it is a magic drink that will make you happy and grown up and attractive.
Sure, our teenagers are shrewd. They know it’s marketing.
A parent or a youth pastor has significantly more influence over a teenager than a commercial during a football game, but what those commercials lack in weight, they make up for in tenacity.
A parent might talk to their teenager once a year about the dangers of alcohol. Commercials, song lyrics, television shows, and movies conspire to tell teenagers tens of thousands of times a year about the awesomeness of alcohol.
So, I get it. It’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about. But if we don’t do it, there are plenty of other people who will. You won’t like what they’re saying.
HELP TEENAGERS UNDERSTAND INFLUENCE.
The scariest truth about underage drinking is that it does not care for a student’s good intentions. A student can sign a covenant or make a promise to abstain from alcohol, but peer pressure and influence are real things.
The sad reality is that if a student’s good friends are underage drinkers, that student is likely to also become an underage drinker. Make it clear to students that they cannot make themselves numb to the influence of others, but that they can decide who will be around to influence them.
There is no one-time decision a student can make to avoid alcohol; only the everyday decision to avoid people and situations surrounded by alcohol.
KNOW YOUR CHURCH’S TEACHING ON ALCOHOL.
Some churches require members and clergy to commit to living “dry.” Others merely suggest it. Some don’t care one way or the other except for a prohibition on drunkenness. Some churches will even have a beer tent at the church fish fry.
Make sure you know where your church sits on that spectrum before you accidentally say something that might lose you your job.
BE CAREFUL NOT TO VILIFY DRINKING.
Underage drinking is bad. Binge drinking is bad. Drinking and driving is bad.
But keep in mind, your students have parents and grandparents who drink wine at dinner or have a beer during the baseball game. You want to be careful not to inadvertently paint those people as “bad people.”
TEACH GRACE. THEN, TEACH GRACE AGAIN.
Too often teenagers die because they compound one bad decision onto another. It happens when they fear the consequences of their punishment more than the consequences of their actions. A former student summed it up this way:
I was at a party and I had a few drinks because everyone else was drinking. It was stupid. My mom texted and told me I needed to come home, so I chugged some mouthwash and then chugged some water and then I did the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I drove home drunk. In my own head, I was just thinking, ‘If I don’t come home, my mom is definitely going to kill me. If I drove home like this, then only maybe will it kill me.’
It’s an exaggeration, obviously, but the minds of the intoxicated are known to be prone to hyperbole.
It’s a difficult thing to balance, but keep in mind that extreme consequences can often lead to sneakier and riskier drinking. A friend of mine used to have a zero tolerance alcohol policy for students on his leadership team, but he abandoned it when he realized it only made those students less likely to talk to their pastor when they were struggling.
EQUIP PARENTS TO TALK TO THEIR TEENAGERS ABOUT ALCOHOL.
Put together materials that parents can use to talk with their teenagers. Host a “tough issues” night for families. Enroll your senior pastor or your family pastor if you need to.
The bottom line is that, while you do have tremendous influence in your position, it’s nothing compared to the influence of a parent. Work together on this one. It’ll be better for everyone involved.
Most of the fruit of this conversation will not come from a stage or even in a small group. Make yourself available to students who need one-on-one time to talk to you about their lives, their struggles, and their temptations. I’ve even got a sneaky way you can help those conversations happen:
Instruct everyone to take out their phone and display your phone number. Ask everyone to text you. Make clear you’re talking about everyone. Ask them to text you the word ‘BEARS’ if they want to talk to you one-on-one sometime soon. Ask them to text you the word ‘BEANS’ if they don’t.
It’s silly and ridiculous, but it will work. It gives students time to tell you NOW that they need help instead of waiting to tell you later, when they will inevitably talk themselves out of it. It also makes sure they don’t feel exposed. Imagine if you told them to text you only IF they wanted to talk. As soon as someone reached for their pocket, they’d feel a hundred judging stares coming from every direction!
Have you talked with your students about alcohol? What did you do to make it a success?
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Written by Aaron Helman. Aaron has been in youth ministry for over 15 years and is currently a youth pastor in South Bend, Indiana.