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Alcohol can be found most everywhere in our communities – at sporting events, outdoor festivals in community parks, restaurants, convenience stores, and more – and as adults, we don’t think twice. Alcohol has ingrained itself into American life and culture, so
why should we?

But parents, don’t underestimate how dangerous alcohol is for teens – and not just in the ways that you might expect. Not only does underage drinking pose a threat to our teens’ physical safety in terms of increased risk of accidents, injuries, and assaults, but alcohol harms the developing brain and greatly increases their risk of addiction. Read on to learn more, and find out what you can do to help protect our kids from alcohol’s harms.

In the Kansas City Northland, the most reported drug used in the last 30 days by 6th-12th students was alcohol, according to the
2022 Missouri Student Survey. More distressingly, the same survey revealed that more than 1 in 3 (38.5%) of those students reported that they didn’t see drinking as harmful. Students also ranked peer acceptance as highest for alcohol in the survey, and 42.6% of students said that alcohol was “easy to get.” These survey results show us the importance of taking action to protect our youth from the harmful effects of alcohol.

What are the Risks to Youth?

We have to be clear here: 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, including addiction, especially considering that youth and young adults are the most likely to binge drink. As adults and parents, it’s our responsibility to protect our kids and teens from things that are harmful to them, and alcohol is harmful to their growing brains and bodies.

Underage Drinking Harms the Developing Brain

Not only is underage drinking both illegal and dangerous, but it can also harm the developing brain now and in the future. This is because our kids and teens are building their adult brains in adolescence, and since the brain doesn’t finish developing until about age 25, it’s left vulnerable to alcohol’s damaging effects during this period of critical brain development. In fact, this time of brain development is so important, that alcohol use can leave permanent negative effects on impulsivity, memory and learning problems, and even mental health.

Young People are More Vulnerable to Addiction

Understanding our teens’ brains in this way makes this staggering statistic more comprehensible: 90% of Americans struggling with addiction started using substances in their teen years, highlighting why it’s so important to take early and ongoing action to keep our kids and teens drug-free.

Young people’s brains are still developing into their
mid-20s by building new connections – called synapses – faster than adult brains. This is perfect for this stage of life, helping them learn new things quickly. However, addiction is also a form of learning, so adolescent brains can become addicted more easily – and quickly – than adult brains. 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

Many firsts occur for our kids during their teen years, including learning to drive and getting their license. However, when driving is mixed with drinking, this exciting new experience can quickly turn into a dangerous one for everyone on the road. Any amount of alcohol increases the risk of crashes among teens compared to older drivers, with teen drivers already having a fatal crash rate almost three times higher than drivers 20 and older to begin with. 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 can be tragic. In fact, about one in four teen car crashes involves a driver who has been drinking.

And when it comes to drinking and driving, there’s another important concern for our teens:
1 in 4 teens is willing to ride with a driver who has been drinking and 1 in 3 teens has been a passenger with a drinking driver in the past year, according to a
national survey by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and State Farm Insurance. In fact, our own Missouri Student Survey revealed that 12.4% of Northland 6th-12th graders in Clay and Platte Counties and 20.5% of 6th-12th graders in Ray County reported having rode with someone who was drinking alcohol. Not only should we be talking to our teens about not drinking and driving themselves, but also never riding with someone who is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Alcohol’s Link to Other Risky Behaviors

If all this isn’t enough, youth use of alcohol can come with many other negative, and potentially dangerous, consequences. According to SAMHSA, youth who drink are more likely to use marijuana and other drugs, have poorer academic performance, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and make decisions that they wouldn’t normally make when sober. Youth who drink alcohol are even more likely 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’s growing brain from early substance use. Learn more about the impact of early alcohol use and teach this to your children. Let your child know you care about their health and safety, and encourage them to do the same. Remember, you have the greatest influence over your child’s decisions around 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 drugs like alcohol harm the growing adolescent brain by watching this video and visiting our Why Parent Up? page.
  • 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 never providing alcohol, hosting parties serving alcohol, or allowing your child and any other child under the age of 21 to drink under your supervision.
  • Share the knowledge! Too many adults don’t see underage drinking as a problem.


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. Remember, this doesn’t have to be complicated! Make time to play, read, draw, go for a walk, or capitalize on times when you can just talk to each other, like in the car.
  • Brainstorm together to identify stress in your child’s life and healthy ways to manage that stress (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 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 decisions on whether or not to experiment with alcohol and other drugs. Although it may not seem like it, when parents talk about underage drinking, kids do listen. 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 answers may surprise you. It’s more important – and effective– to listen and discuss rather than lecture.

Communicate Action Steps:

  • Be clear and focus on the risks of alcohol use on your child’s brain, 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 many dangerous situations.
  • 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.
  • Use our helpful set of Parent Up Tools, like our Going Out” Checklist, to help set expectations and boundaries, better communicate with your child, and more!
  • Unsure of how to talk to your child about alcohol or what’s appropriate for their age? Visit our Communication Guides.

Careful Attention

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. You know your child best!

Alcohol’s short-term consequences become immediately apparent after use. Adolescents are even more susceptible to its effects because their bodies are new to processing this drug and their body weight is generally smaller than an adult’s. In addition to these short-term consequences, any quantity of alcohol can also have 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
    – Hangovers


  • Check in with your child before they go out and when they get home from events or activities. Adolescents who drink alcohol will quickly experience:
    – Decreased memory
    – Decreased decision-making control
    – Slower brain activity
    – Slower reaction time
    – Lowered inhibitions


  • Always have your alcohol locked up and inaccessible to youth. Make sure you monitor the quantity.
  • 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?

Helpful Resources


Has alcohol use affected you, your family, or your friends?

Have your health, relationships, finances, school or work been impacted by alcohol use? What about the people you love? Please share your story and tell us why you’re passionate about preventing underage drinking. We’re collecting these stories to help change our communities’ perspective, better understand the impact underage drinking can have in our communities, protect kids and teens, and prevent alcohol use disorder and addiction.

We’d like the opportunity to follow up!

Please share your contact information below. Everything will be kept confidential and anonymous, but this information gives us the chance to reach out to learn more about your story.
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