What to do when you catch your teenager drinking

recmmc asks: I was putting something away in my 12-year-old daughter’s room, and I saw half- hidden water bottles, three of them with alcohol in them, and two shot glasses. I don’t know how to confront her regarding this and proper discipline.

Hi recmmc –

As frightening as this has to have been for you, I can assure you it’s as common as fleas on my tummy in summer.  Normally this will happen a year or two later than twelve years old, but your daughter may just be an “early bloomer.”  I’m going to guess that two things are going on here.

First of all, she is doing the natural experimentation teenagers do.  She’s trying out something that’s always been forbidden, attempting to act older than she is, and very likely doing it with a friend or friends, which makes it even more exciting and meaningful to her.

On the other hand, she has done it in a clumsy way – leaving the evidence right out there for you to find, which tells me she was absolutely planning (maybe unconsciously) for you to catch her.

My suggestion to you would be to respond to it, but in a very “cool” way.  She’s broken a rule, and there needs to be some sort of consequence, but as of now there’s no sign that she’s approaching alcoholism or anything like that.  You just want to let her know you’re in charge.

Part of being a teenager is testing boundaries, especially with parents and their rules.  The world is telling them every day to be more adult, and also stay a child.  So they need to figure out what are real boundaries and what aren’t.  It sounds to me like she’s doing just that. 

The funny part about this is that somewhere, deep-down, most teens in situations like this are actually hoping their parents set strong boundaries.  They need to feel what their real limits are so they can grow within them. 

But also there might be a cry-for-attention going on here.  I remember once, my human friend Handsome was working on a big project, and was gone pretty much all day every day for a few weeks, just coming home at night to sleep.  I amused myself by focusing on birds and squirrels, and some rats that would come over from our neighbor’s house, but I missed him and his attention horribly. 

Finally, one day he didn’t leave.  He had the day off and went about spending it at home, very happily.  And what did he do with that time?  He got the huge pile of mail that had accumulated and set to working on it, reading letters, paying bills, all that sort of stuff.  Well I was furious – I’d been patient all this time, and now that he was free he was going to look at papers?!  So I, very carefully, watching him to catch his eye, started walking around his white couch, which I wasn’t allowed onto.  And once he glanced up, I climbed right onto it, staring him in the eye the entire time!  Well of course he jumped up and yelled at me.  But he also, at that moment, realized what I was doing and why.  And so once he got me off the couch, he took me outdoors and started playing catch with me, which gave me exactly what I needed.

So again, my friend, my suggestion is to simply confront your daughter, and give her some small consequence for breaking the rules, and see if that’s enough.  And maybe, depending on your own views on this issue, you might offer to let her have a sip of wine or beer next time you have some – to let her know that, while the rules still apply, you also recognize that she is starting to grow into an adult.  (But that last part isn’t necessary unless it feels completely right to you).

Now if you do this and she does it again, or you see bigger problems, then please write me again, as that’s a very different story.  But for now, cool and clear will probably work just right.

All my best,


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