Your teenager's traded her bike for car keys, and sidewalk chalk for makeup. High school is here, and along with it, a new host of peer-pressure driven situations where she'll have to make decisions—without you by her side.

When it comes to talking with teens about alcohol, it seems like everyone's got an opinion. Some say to discuss the subject early and often, while others warn that too much talk is detrimental. And then there's the issue of what to say—how to raise the topic, get your teen chatting, and give advice that she'll actually listen to. Though it can feel overwhelming, don't be daunted. The seven tips below offer a roadmap for a successful conversation with your teen about the dangers of alcohol and drinking:

  • Get talking. Routinely engage your teen in conversations about non alcohol-related topics, from football games to politics. This interest in her life shows her that you're genuinely interested in her thoughts and opinions, paving the way for comfortable dialogue when you do raise the topic of alcohol. Listen without judgment, and resist the urge to over-step: an open line of communication with your teen also makes her feel comfortable going to you with any questions she might have—alcohol-related or otherwise.
  • Read together. Recommend a memoir to your teen to give a firsthand account of how dangerous underage drinking can be, and make it a point to read along with your own copy. After you've both finished, use the book as a jumping off point for discussions about peer pressure, partying, and any other topics that might hit home. If you're in search of an appropriate book, Sue Scheff (a parent advocate, author, and founder of Parent's Universal Resource Experts, Inc.) recommends Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, a New York Times bestseller about a teen girl's struggle with alcoholism.
  • Get gritty. Since teens can often feel like they're invincible, be sure to remind your child that if she chooses to drink, she runs the risk of hurting her mind, body, and future. A 2000 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that alcohol consumption by adolescents can cause potentially permanent damage to the brain and slows intellectual development—if she starts experimenting young, she could run the risk of damage that prevents her acceptance into college, or worse. Additionally, be sure your teen's familiar with any state-specific laws on underage drinking—such as a 90-day license suspension—so she has insight into the full legal ramifications of her actions.
  • Make consequences clear. Be upfront about what will happen if your teen is ever caught drinking, and don't be afraid to back down should the occasion arise. Having clear guidelines from the get-go will eliminate any confusion in your sixteen-year-old's mind about what is and isn't okay, and let her know that you're serious about avoiding underage drinking, before it's too late. "Waiting for a crisis to happen, such as living with an alcoholic or having an issue with a family member that has a drinking problem, is not the time to start talking to the child," says Scheff.
  • Talk—no matter what. Even if you're absolutely, positively sure that your high-schooler is not drinking, don't think that you can skip the chat about alcohol. It's important to guard her with facts in case she encounters situations beyond her control. For example, talk to her about how to stay safe at high-school and college parties and avoid having anything (alcohol-related or otherwise) slipped into her soda while she's turned the other way. If you think your teen's immune from these dangers, consider this: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 1992 that alcohol is related to upwards of two-thirds of all sexual assaults and date rapes of teens and college students.
  • Prepare for the worst. If your teen does decide to drink despite your best efforts (or finds herself with an intoxicated friend), arm her with the information she needs to stay safe in an emergency. Be sure she has the number of a local cab company or volunteer driving service that can get her home safely, and instruct her to call a hospital immediately if anyone shows signs of alcohol poisoning.
  • Offer an out. Give your teen a counselor or other trusted adult she can chat with about alcohol to help her get guidance if she doesn't feel like talking to you. If you're not sure who to recommend, try to find someone your teen can relate to (or at least enjoys talking to) that shares your views on alcohol and underage drinking, such as a younger aunt or your best friend. In addition to therapists, relatives, or family friends, consider directing her to a trusted older sibling or sports coach—the important thing is that it's someone who can get your teen talking.

Though it can feel awkward, forced, and confusing at the outset, talking with your teen about alcohol and drinking is one of the best ways to help her make positive choices. Using the tips above to get your teen talking will help you both feel more confident that she'll say no to underage drinking.