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MADD National President: Tools to Reduce Underage Drinking


As we prepare to send kids back to classrooms for another school year, it’s important to equip parents and caregivers with the tools for talking with their children about alcohol. This issue is especially personal for me because my beautiful 15-year-old daughter, Alisa Joy, was killed by an underage drunk driver. While the pain of losing a loved one to drunk driving is devastating, we at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are committed to educating families about how to prevent such needless tragedies.

Teen alcohol use kills 6,000 young people each year, more than all other illegal drugs combined. However, research shows that three out of four teens say their parents are the number one influence on their decisions about alcohol. So it makes sense to provide parents with the tools to effectively harness their tremendous influence.

The most costly assumption parents make is “my kids are good kids, and I can trust they’ll make the right decisions.” Although, research shows that clear and ongoing communication about alcohol is critical in preventing underage drinking.

To help parents have the sometimes difficult, but potentially lifesaving, conversations about alcohol, we partnered with Pennsylvania State University’s Dr. Robert Turrisi on a program that is based on his handbook for parents of college freshman. That handbook was shown to significantly reduce underage drinking behaviors, even in households with below average communication.

Here are a few practical tips for communicating with teens about underage drinking:

Talk before a problem starts.

  • Have the important discussions now, before there’s blame, anger or punishments.
  • Agree on a time to talk about the dangers of alcohol — preferably when they’re not tired, hungry or angry.

Discuss rules and consequences.

  • Explain expectations and tell them you don’t want him/her drinking.
  • Agree on consequences for broken rules.

Show you care.

  • Show affection and tell them that you care about them and want them to be healthy and safe.

Pay attention.

  • Even when life gets hectic, take time out to listen to them.
  • Know where they are and what they’re doing.

Give and get respect.

  • Listen and respond respectfully when they talk.
  • Insist that they treat you with respect too.

The program, titled Power of Parents, It’s Your Influence™, also includes a community-based component with free 30-minute workshops aimed at providing the tools to talk with teens about the dangers of underage drinking. During the workshops, parents, caregivers and other attendees receive the parent handbook — an easy-to-use, take-home guide for talking with teens about alcohol.

While I did have conversations with my daughter about the dangers of underage drinking and getting in the car with a driver who’s been drinking, I didn’t discuss it often enough. Now I wish I had. These are important conversations for all families to have on an ongoing basis.  What better time to begin than now?  It could, after all, be lifesaving.

Jan Withers, MADD National President

7 Responses to this article

  1. Len / August 24, 2011 at 11:53 am

    As far as parents drinking in front of their children.First of all alcohol is legal and is supposed to be for adults but we all know how that goes.I am considered a light drinker in that I have a beer with dinner.I never drink to excess.I think as a parent you can lead by example in making responsible choices.I have an open relationship with my daughter and frequently have talked about the negative consequences to excessvive drinking and drug use and what it does to the brain.I am always telling her to think before she acts or speaks and make good decisions.I am hopeful that she makes good choices in high school and college otherwise she will need to suffer and live with the consequences of poor decisions.

  2. Avatar of Craig Gehring
    Craig Gehring / August 21, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    I think parents completely under-estimate the influence they can have with their kids on the subject of substance abuse. Alcohol, in particular, is a problem because parents often drink in front of their kids. This is something that has to be talked about so that the kids understand the difference between a glass of wine with a meal vs. binge drinking and underage drinking. Of all the alcohol abuse solutions out there, parental communication is probably the easiest and most efficient. That is, communication before there is even a problem. Unfortunately, it just takes one bad judgment to create a lot of tragedy. Keep up the good work, Jan! Who knows how many lives you’ve already saved with your work.

  3. Avatar of Tammy
    Tammy / August 20, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Yes I live in Colorado Springs Colorado and I have a lady who lives next to me with a 5 year old girl. She has 3 DUI’s and is still driving back and forth to work every day. Her mother who lives up the street from her has a DUI and babysits the little girl. I know for a fack one day in the end of June she was driving drunk with her granddaughter and was at the park and I was friends at the time and offered to walk her granddaughter home she flipped out. She is still driving I would like to know how is this possible she almost ran my 13 year down I had to yell at him to get off the road she was driving on. What can be done as I am dumb founded that this can still go on with 3 DUI’s. Thanks for your time.

  4. / August 20, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    An additional approach that I have found works with the young people I talk to is to incorporate the 21st century brain and addiction-related research. This blog post helps explain some of that science, “How Teens Become Alcoholics Before Age 21,”

  5. Avatar of Dana
    Dana / August 20, 2011 at 11:55 am

    wish I MADD would have helped us in our case. we are still fighting our case of drunk driver that ran my son off the road. no contact hit and run, but when i first called them locally, they said they could not help us. i called back recently and was told had I talked to them, they would have helped. this kid is still wreaking havoic, dwi charge right now and a drug charge, his dad has money and buys him out of trouble everytime. now my son suffers with TBI cant talk, walk or eat and is trapped in his own world. he was 18 now 20 living in a nursing home. the accident was not investigated properly, due to dirty cops. what a shame this kid is still loose and what will it take to stop him?

  6. Avatar of Joel Bader
    Joel Bader / August 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

    All of this is good advice but I think one bit of advice should be considered–the example of the parents! What if the parents are seen by the teens attending cocktail parties or going to social gatherings in which alcohol plays a key role? And what about those teens who come from families who have an alcoholic in their household? Shouldn’t the parents give up booze if only to set an example for their children? Thoughts please!

  7. Avatar of MAGGIE
    MAGGIE / September 29, 2011 at 6:18 pm


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