Parents, do not underestimate how dangerous alcohol is for teens. Alcohol use is very common in our society, and because it is sold and drank in so many places, we often forget how risky drinking can be for young people. Alcohol use in the adolescent years harms the developing brain and greatly increases their risk of addiction. Alcohol kills more teens than all other illegal drugs combined.
What are the Risks to Youth?
There is no “responsible use” of alcohol by minors. Not only does allowing minors to consume alcohol send a message that some laws are meant to be broken, but adolescent drinking may bring about a host of dangers and lifelong ramifications, especially considering that young adults are the most likely to binge drink.
Underage Drinking Harms the Developing Brain
Because the adolescent brain doesn’t finish developing until about age 25, any alcohol use during this period of critical and vulnerable brain development can have damaging and permanent effects on impulsivity, memory and learning problems, and even mental health.
Young People are More Vulnerable to Addiction
90% of people with addictions started using substances in their teen years, so it’s important to take early and ongoing action to keep your child drug-free.
Because young people’s brains are still developing into their mid-20s, they build synapses faster than adult brains. Addiction is a form of learning, so adolescents can get addicted more easily than adults. Research also shows that the earlier a person starts drinking, the more likely they are to struggle with serious problems with alcohol or develop an alcohol use disorder later in life. Adolescents who drink before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21. This means they may unsuccessfully try to quit drinking, may want to drink alcohol despite negative consequences, or will voluntarily pass up events with family and friends to drink.
Youth and Impaired Driving
Any amount of alcohol increases the risk of crashes among teens as compared with older drivers. Alcohol impairs reaction time, sense of spatial judgment, visual functions, and ability to concentrate on many things at once — all abilities needed to drive safely. Couple this with inexperienced teen drivers, and the results are tragic. In fact, about one in four teen car crashes involves a driver who has been drinking.
Alcohol’s Link to Other Risky Behaviors
According to SAMHSA, minors who drink are more likely to use marijuana and other drugs, have poorer academic performance, engage in risky sexual behaviors, make regretful decisions, and to be injured, assaulted, or die in an accident.
What Can Parents Do?
In order to protect your child from underage drinking, Parent Up encourages parents to CARE, CONNECT, COMMUNICATE and pay CAREFUL ATTENTION. While this strategy is no guarantee, if implemented consistently and with intention, the likelihood of your child engaging in any substance use is much lower.
Make a commitment that you will do everything you can to protect your child from early substance use. Learn more about the impact of early alcohol use and teach this to your children. Let your child know that you care about their health and safety and encourage them to do the same. Remember that you have the greatest influence over your child’s engagement in substance use so don’t relinquish this power. Use it to protect your child from a place of concern, love, and support.
Care Action Steps:
- Learn more about how dopamine and drugs like alcohol impact the vulnerable adolescent brain.
- Review the risk factors that increase the risk of addiction and use this information to inform how you protect your child. Build protective factors where you can.
- Commit to not providing alcohol to your child or any other child under the age of 21.
- Share the knowledge! Too many adults don’t see underage drinking as a problem. Download our Why 21?: Alcohol and Teens Don’t Mix one page handout and share with a family member or a friend.
Connection is key to prevention. Kids that have stable, consistent, and healthy relationships with adults are more likely to make safer decisions and live healthier lives. It’s important that parents, and other caring adults, take time to listen, pay attention, spend time, and follow up with the kids in their lives. When kids feel valued, they better understand their feelings and are more willing to listen to you.
Connect Action Steps:
- This TED Talk explores practical ideas for anyone who wants to create connections with kids.
- Meaningful Meals Kit: Kids who have meals with their family on a regular basis are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including substance use! Our Tools page here at Parent Up has a great kit with tools, tips, and resources to help parents make meals more meaningful with their kids and teens. Utilizing this kit can help you maximize the benefits of regular family meals, which includes reducing the likelihood of underage drinking!
- Set aside regular one-on-one time with your child to bond and have fun together.
- Brainstorm together to identify healthy ways to manage the stress in their life (like getting more sleep, going outdoors, having “unplugged” time from the internet, etc.). Be open to your child’s suggestions and help them think through some ideas.
Start early and let your child know you care about their health and safety, and that you are speaking from a place of concern, love, and support. These can be tricky conversations to navigate with your kids, but a little work on the front end can protect your child’s health and safety for years to come.
Parents have a significant influence in their children’s decision to experiment with alcohol and other drugs. Although it may not seem like it, when parents talk about underage drinking and substance use, their children do hear them. Make it clear to your child that you don’t approve of them drinking under the age of (at least) 21, but be curious and open-minded about their experiences. It’s easier to start a conversation about alcohol by asking what they think about it or if they’ve seen other kids drinking than to immediately interrogate them about if they’ve ever tried alcohol. Ask them what they think about drinking under age 21. Their answer may surprise you. It’s more important – and effective– to listen and discuss rather than to lecture.
Communicate Action Steps:
- Be clear and focus on the risks of alcohol use on your child’s health and safety. Let your child know you love them and don’t want anything bad to happen to them.
- Take a stand and let your child know you disapprove of any drug or alcohol use, no exceptions. Explain to them that underage drinking is illegal because it is harmful to their developing brains, can lead to lifelong addiction, and can lead to dangerous situations.
- Unsure of how to talk to your child about alcohol or what’s appropriate for their age? Visit our Communication Guides.
- Use “teachable moments” to raise alcohol issues. Use public service announcements, stories on the news, TV plot lines, pop culture or current issues at school or in the community to spur on conversation.
- Frequently talk, and listen, to your child about how things are going in their life. Try to find time to talk and really connect with your child every day.
As a general rule, know where your kids are at, who they are with, and be sure to check in when they get home. Be on alert for changes in behaviors, friend groups, or attitudes.
Alcohol’s short term consequences become immediately apparent after use. Adolescents are even more susceptible to alcohol because their bodies are new to processing this drug and their body weight is generally smaller than an adult’s. Adolescents who drink alcohol will quickly experience:
- Decreased memory
- Decreased decision-making control
- Slower brain activity
- Slow reaction time
- Lowered inhibitions
While an adult may experience brief relaxation in small doses, any quantity of alcohol will have both short-term and long-term damaging effects on a child’s brain and overall health.
Careful Attention Action Steps:
- Look out for signs that your child might be drinking:
- Empty bottles, shot glasses, bottle openers
- Water or soda bottles (or other containers) used to conceal liquor
- Smell of alcohol on the breath
- Slurred speech
- Lack of coordination
- Nausea and vomiting
- Always have your alcohol locked up and inaccessible to minors. Make sure you monitor the quantity.
- Check in with your teenager before and after they go out. You can use our helpful “Going Out” Checklist. Pay careful attention to changes in friends, behaviors, and attitudes.
- Stay at home when your child hosts a party. Monitor the party and make sure that alcohol and other drugs in the home are secured and inaccessible to minors.
- Talk to other parents about not having alcohol (or any other drugs) at parties in their home when minors are present.
- Plan activities in your home that are free of alcohol or other drugs.
- Report underage drinking or drug use to local police. If you know of a party coming up, and have reasonable suspicion that alcohol will be provided to minors, contact your local law enforcement agency with the name, address, and date of the party. You can also send the Alcohol Parent Up Warning Letter to the adults at the residence.
Worried your child may be using drugs?
- “Talk. They Hear You.” SAMHSA aims to reduce underage drinking and substance use among youths under the age of 21 by providing parents and caregivers with information and resources they need to address alcohol and other drug use with their children early.
- 13 Things to Know When Talking to Your Child about Alcohol from Psychology Today. Get tips for talking to your kids about alcohol at different ages, from starting young to talking to teens.
- Why 21?: Teens and Alcohol Don’t Mix from Parent Up. A one page handout that explains why underage drinking is dangerous and harmful to teens.
- Addiction & the Brain (4 minutes)
This easy-to-follow video explains how repeated substance use can hijack brain function, and the importance of delaying use until the brain has fully developed.
- Teen Health: Substance Use and Abuse (3 minutes)
A great “101” video about teens, their brains, and how drugs affect their natural reward system.
- Talking to Kids about Drugs and Alcohol (30 seconds)
Dr. Yolanda Evans shares tips for when and how to talk to your child and drugs and alcohol.
- What does alcohol do to a teen’s brain? (2 minutes)
An easy-to-follow video about the harmful effects of alcohol on the teenage brain.