I was recently asked to do an “Ask the Expert” spot on Fox News about what parents can do about kids who party and drink heavily. Given the response from viewers, I decided to summarize some of the key points.

As I thought about what I wanted to say in the brief time allocated, I realized that while there are stacks of books offering advice for how parents should talk to a teen or young adult whose drinking and/or partying is of concern, they all presume one thing: That the teen or young adult will listen, be receptive, and be influenced by what Mom or Dad (or Teacher or Neighbor) has to say.

Rather than figuring how what to say, the tougher question that needs to be asked is “How can I create a receptivity in my son or daughter so that they will not only listen to me (which in and of itself is sometimes a minor miracle) but that they’ll actually be influenced by what I have to say?”

What would make a teen want your input or advice?

• They would know that you’re capable of managing your reactions if they tell you their truth
• They would feel you were truly on their side
• They would have the sense that you understand—or at least want to understand—what it’s like to be them, to live in their skin
• The would see you as a safe confidante

Working backwards, then, from the goal of having your son or daughter be receptive to your concerns, the process starts well before the conversation begins. If you ask yourself this question in the privacy of your own thoughts, and answer as honestly as possible, you have a chance to be less reactive when you’re face to face with your youngster: “Why would drinking and partying heavily seem like a good idea to my son/daughter?”

By attempting to understand this from their point of view, you have a shot at walking into their room with fewer judgments about their behavior. This by no means suggests you believe it’s okay that they are doing what they’re doing. It simply means you’re willing to loosen the grip of the story that they shouldn’t do what they’re already doing.

If you answer truthfully and openly, you may find answers like, “He should drink heavily because it helps him feel more at ease with his friends.” Or, “She really doesn’t see any harm in it, and it’s fun.” Again, the purpose of asking this isn’t to endorse the drinking. It’s just about preparing you to talk with your son or daughter in a way that lets them know you’re not there to judge, scold or criticize. (If you remember your adolescence at all, you’ll recall that there’s nothing that shuts down a conversation faster than a parent who lectures, threatens or acts like a know-it-all.)

When you do approach your youngster—assuming you’ve prepared yourself as I’ve described and are not as likely to lose your cool—start by just connecting. Ask them what they’re up to, tell them some bit of news, or do whatever you can to create a sense of connection.

While I can’t script the conversation for you, you might say something like, “I’ve noticed that you tend to sleep till two or three on the day after you’ve been out, honey, and it seems like you’ve been partying pretty heavily. I’ve been concerned about it. Can you tell me--What’s it like for you to drink a lot when you go out?”

The idea here is to avoid awakening your son or daughter’s defensiveness, and to genuinely give them the sense that you want to know what it’s like to be them. “Tell me more” are three of my favorite words. Make it clear that you’re just going to listen for a while, and when they start talking, keep your lips together! Do not interrupt, advise, criticize or enlighten. Just listen.

Rephrase some of the things they say. “So, one of the things I heard you say is that you don’t feel seven or eight beers are too many if you’re not going to be driving.” Or, “From where you sit, everybody drinks a lot and it’s just part of being a twenty-year old out with her friends.” You want to give them the sense that you’re listening, and that you’re truly attempting to hear what it’s like for them.

When they’re finished, you then ask if they’d be willing to hear your input. If they still perceive you as being open and relaxed (even though internally you may be freaking out, I’m hoping you’re doing your best to manage that!) there’s a good chance they’ll be willing to hear you out. If they say “No, I don’t want to hear you” don’t push it. Walk away, leave it alone, and don’t be surprised if they’re softer around the edges and more approachable later in the day or week.

The key here is this: Do not make this a power struggle. If your teen son or daughter perceives you as pushing, they will push back. Conversely, if you’re not pushing, they won’t have anything to push back against.

If and when they are willing to hear you out, start by looking for nods. What do I mean by that? A person is most receptive when they’re already nodding their head, or responding in a positive way to something. So start your comments by saying something they’ll say yes to. “One thing I heard you say is that when you drink at a party, it makes it much more fun.” (Teen is nodding.) “I also understand that for you, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to drink as long as you’re not driving.” (Nodding more.)

Now, while they’re in this receptive state where they see you’re getting them, and you’re not pushing, and they’re feeling understood, you have a chance to express yourself. “I get that you feel it’s harmless, honey. From where I’m sitting, though, I have these concerns. When you drink a lot, there’s no avoiding the fact that your judgment is impaired. Another thing that happens is that you aren’t really in control of what happens to you.” You can go on with one or two other concerns but be brief. The less you say, the greater the chance they’ll absorb what you’re saying.

This might be all you do in the first conversation.

Later, (or or they’re extremely open in this first conversation) you could go on to ask them to look at a YouTube video made by a kid their age who’s seen the dark side of drinking heavily, or to visit a website with info that’s been generated by and for teens and young adults. Or you may have a family friend or neighbor that they respect or who’s around their age who has visited the darker side of heavy drinking and partying who they might be willing to talk with.

The important thing to remember is that you want your kids to feel you are coming alongside them rather than coming at them. If they smell an agenda, they’ll close down. If they sense you’re there to lecture and judge them, they’ll put up the brick wall.

By approaching your son or daughter with a willingness to genuinely hear them out, you’ll create the greatest chance that they will listen and be receptive to what you have to say. And more importantly, you’ll set up the possibility that they will consider your insights.

Parenting teens and young adults can be incredibly challenging. You can’t control them; the best you can hope for is to influence them. But regardless of their age, or whether they tower over you, there’s never a time when we stop caring and worrying about our kids if they seem to be engaging in risky behavior.

Hopefully, some of these ideas will make sense to you and will help you if your youngster is making what you consider poor or dangerous choices.

It’s fine for kids to party, and understandable that in a culture that glorifies intoxication, they will want to experiment. But as “fun” as it might be in the moment, heavy drinking or partying in ways that compromise a teenager’s safety and integrity are not required rites of passage to growing up. In addition, there are elements of depression and/or anxiety that are often being masked by these behaviors.

Which brings me to the uncomfortable part of this conversation. While there are kids who simply party heavily because they believe it's more fun, it lowers their inhibitions, or because of the peer pressure, there are plenty who do so because they've watched their parents weave alcohol into the rituals of their down-time. If your child has observed you immediately asking friends who arrive for an evening at your home, "What'll you have to drink?", there's a reasonable chance that they will believe it's normal to drink when they get together with their friends.

Similarly, if they see you drinking at the end of a day to unwind, or when you're feeling anxious or blue, your kids will be getting the message that being altered is an acceptable way of dealing with those moments when it's uncomfortable to be in one's skin.

If your son or daughter believes you use alcohol to have fun, relax or feel better, they're going to naturally be less receptive to your concerns about their drinking. If this is the case, I would invite you to take an honest look at whether you have some degree of dependence on alcohol, and address that with courage and support.

I wish you the very best in this more challenging part of the parenting journey. As tough as it can be to raise a two-year old, the dance indeed becomes more complicated when they’re nearly grown up.

Hang in there, and visit www.passionateparenting.net for more information

Author's Bio: 

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed marriage and family therapist, educational consultant and parenting coach. Through her private practice, public presentations, workshops, teleclasses and website, she has become a source of advice and support for around the world. Her book, Cool, Calm and Connected: How to Avoid Negotiations, Arguments and Meltdowns With Your Kids, will be released soon. Susan can be reached at www.passionateparenting.net , or osusannaji@gmail.com