Hi Dr Justin,
My 20 year old son is troubling me as I feel he is consuming far too much alcohol. For example, last Friday, he purchased a bottle of Scotch and finished drinking it last night. Today he purchased a bottle of Bacardi. He began drinking it mixed with coke at 7pm and by 9.30 pm, he had consumed 3/4 of the bottle, all on his own. Through my frustration, I demanded he stop which he begrudgingly has and has now left the house!
I am so frightened and frustrated by this behaviour and I am not sure how to approach or deal with this situation, given that he is almost 21 yrs old.
I began to search the Internet and came across your site. I obviously have only given you a snapshot of his life and you may require more information in order to make any recommendation but is it possible to guide a belligerent 20 year old to seek a solution to this type of issue.
I would be grateful if you could provide any input. My husband and I love our children so much and only want to for them to be happy and safe.
Dr Justin responds:
Once our children are adults, our ability to influence them can become significantly diminished. (Some parents complain this happens once the children become teens… or even toddlers!) While some parents rely on their power to make their children behave in certain ways, the effectiveness of this strategy reduces significantly as the children grow.
Ultimately, if power is not going to work (and since power is, at best, a short-term strategy for achieving unwilling compliance), we need something better to influence our children – particularly as adults. I believe that this ‘something better’ is trust. Trust is the belief that another person will act in your best interests. And trust comes from high-quality relationships. Chances are that if your child is not willing to be influenced by you, he does not trust you to act in his best interests. He thinks there is something decidedly dodgy about your judgements. Or he simply doesn’t care enough to bother listening.
Either way, the following five steps are the most powerful strategy I know for strengthening relationships, building trust, creating influence, and setting effective boundaries with children, regardless of their age. These strategies even work in couple relationships, and in workplaces! (Note that these four steps do not need to be followed in order. They are more about a process than a linear step-by-step formula to follow.)
With older/adult children and alcohol, this may be tricky. Choosing the right time to have the conversation, and the right way to introduce it matters. Don’t talk about the issue when it happens. Don’t discuss it while everyone is hungry, angry, stressed, or tired (or drunk). Don’t talk about the issue when you’re mad. And make sure there’s no audience.
Instead, talk about things when you are relaxed, and when it has not been an issue for a few days. Teens and young adults seem particularly responsive when they are preparing for bed, and are laying down for the night. Sometimes they like to chat in the car. You know your son. Choose your timing carefully and strategically. Start the conversation gently, and following the next few steps – perhaps starting with understanding.
Have you ever asked why your son loves the grog? What motivates him to drink so much? Try to understand his desire to drink without judging.
Understanding does not mean agreeing. It does mean saying, “Help me get why you love drinking so much.”
Avoid using pejorative terms though. Don’t ask, “What is it with you wanting to write yourself off every night? I want to understand.” That sounds more like an attack. Rather than attacking, listen and understand. If his reasons are lousy, accept them and ask permission to share one of those ‘hard’ conversations for a minute or two.
Making demands, telling children how it ought to be, or simply saying, “Do it because I said so” is typically a less effective strategy for achieving any kind of compliance – unless you wield a very big stick. There is something inside each of us that resists being told what to do, or manipulated and forced to act a certain way. When we are invited to do something and we are given a clear understanding of why it is important, we tend to be far more willing to comply.
You might say, “I get that you love the feeling. And I understand that it’s a release. I want to tell you what I’m seeing. You don’t need to respond. Just hear me out and then we can chat if you like. I’m seeing you down unhealthy amounts of alcohol a lot. I’m worried about you. And I’m concerned about the impact this will have on your work, your relationships, your finances, and your health.”
Ideally, this conversation will lead to both of you acting like adults and agreeing that you can probably both do more to be tolerant of one another. You might say, “We obviously see this a little differently. But I get that you like it. And I’m pretty sure you understand that our concern for your health and safety leads us to want you to drink less in terms of both frequency and quantity.” Next, we simply ask, “What do you think is the best way to deal with this?” Giving a degree of autonomy allows your son to make his own decisions, but when he says, “Nothing. I don’t see the need to change anything” it allows you to set limits. You might reply, “That’s not an option for us. We need a better solution.”
Ideally a solution will be found. If not, some control might be necessary, but only after you exhaust other options. This should also be introduced with a clear rationale, and in a problem-solving manner if possible.
These discussions are rarely, if ever, easy. Staying calm should be your first priority. Offering unconditional love is critical. Ultimately, if your son lives at home he needs to be willing to be respectful of your values. Having the discussion and working through the problem-solving process is essential. It may take more than one conversation, but it needs to happen. Remember though, to do all you can to preserve the relationship. While disapproval and ostracism may be the easy answers, the best outcomes typically require greater effort and character.