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8 Warning Signs That Your Child Has Been Drinking

Alcohol is the most commonly used and misused drug among youth in the United States.1 And according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there were approximately 10 million underage drinkers in 2010.2

As a parent, you want what’s best for your child, which is why it’s important to proactively prevent them from drinking. But how can you tell if your child has been drinking or experimenting with alcohol? Sometimes, it’s not always as obvious as you smelling booze on their clothing.

Warning Signs To Look Out For

Here are a few common changes in your kid’s physical appearance and behavior that may be warning signs that they have been drinking:

  1. Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability, and defensiveness
  2. School problems: poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action
  3. Pushing boundaries: rebellion against family rules
  4. Friend group changes: switching friends and a reluctance to let you get to know the new friends
  5. A “nothing matters” attitude: sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and general low energy
  6. Alcohol presence: finding it in your child’s room or backpack or smelling alcohol on his or her breath
  7. Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech
  8. Secretiveness: reluctance to share their whereabouts

Although these signs may indicate a problem with alcohol or other substances, some also reflect normal growing pains, which is why it’s important not to jump to conclusions. However, if you notice several of these signs at the same time, if they occur suddenly, or if they are extreme in nature, it may be indicative of a drinking problem. 

What To Do If Your Child Has Been Drinking

Remain calm – While it may seem difficult in the moment to stay calm, it’s important not to immediately jump to conclusions or play the blame game. Let your child know that you are aware that they have been drinking, then take some time to settle down, to ease out of whatever shock, anger, or powerlessness you may be feeling.

Talk about what happened –  Listen to your kid, gathering information about their perspective of what happened, why, and what they think now. Through their own processing, your child can decide alcohol is bad for them on their own.

Help them understand why alcohol is harmful to them – Explain to your child the dangerous long-term effects of alcohol. Make it clear that you’re not just being irrational and emphasize your concern for their safety.

Identify steps for future prevention – Having reflected on the situation, it’s time to partner with your kid for the future. What consequences are necessary now and what can be put in place to break the pattern for next time? 

And Remember…

It’s important to remember that this is not a one-time discussion, but rather an ongoing conversation. Keep an eye on your child and check in with them regularly, because young people are more likely to drink if they think no one will notice. 

Parent Up is here to help. Check out our collection of online tools and resources for more facts on drinking, tips for starting a conversation with your child, and tips on how you can prevent underage drinking.

1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2007.


Alcohol Advertising – How It Influences Youth Perceptions on Drinking

This month, Ryan Shafer, Community Development Specialist with the Clay County Health Center, describes the effect of alcohol advertising on youth, and the correlation it has with underage drinking.

Advertising is everywhere, and alcohol-related advertising is no exception. In 2011 alone, 14 major alcohol marketers spent a whopping $3.45 billion on advertising.1 According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, youth aged 11 to 14 see an average of 2 to 4 alcohol advertisements every day.2 While the purpose of advertising is to inform consumers about a product, it’s also meant to enhance a company’s image and convince customers to make a purchase. This has the potential to be dangerous in situations where alcohol ads are put in front of the eyes of youth.

The Research

Alcohol companies try to portray their brand as cool, stylish, and fun. Anyone who was once a teenager can attest to how appealing that would seem! Wanting to feel popular and liked is normal, but for a high schooler, feeling popular can mean everything. 

So what impact does alcohol advertising have on youth, and is there a correlation to underage drinking? A study that followed 7th to 9th graders examined this question in-depth and found that ads did in fact have a profound effect on underage drinking. 

At the start, students were divided into two groups; initial non-drinkers (who had never had a sip of alcohol) and initial drinkers. What they found was that by grade 9, nearly half of the 7th graders that were non-drinkers became drinkers, and that in-store advertisements had the greatest influence with this group.3

Other studies published found similar results. A 2015 study found that receptivity to television alcohol advertising among underage participants was a predictor of the onset of drinking, binge drinking, and hazardous drinking.4 Findings from another study revealed that the more alcohol advertisements youth saw above the average resulted in an increase in the number of drinks they consumed each month.5 

What Can Parents Do?

Beyond modelling responsible behavior, it’s important for parents to have conversations with their kids in order to empower them to make smart choices independent of the influence of big corporations. As a parent, you have significant influence over your child’s choices. In fact, a 2016 Roper youth report found that parents have 71 times more influence on their child’s decision to drink than alcohol advertising.6  

The Federal Trade Commission has created a list of guiding questions to help improve the “media literacy” of your child and teach them to think critically about the advertisements they see. Tailoring the message to your child’s age and attention level, pick an ad you see and draw out their thoughts by asking questions like:

  • Who created or paid for the ad, and why?
  • What do they want you to do?
  • What techniques are being used to make the scene and the product look attractive? For example, 
    • Who are the people in the ad and how do they look?  
    • What are they doing, and where? 
    • Does the ad try to associate the brand with fun, or sports, or humor? How?
    • Does the ad suggest that alcohol somehow makes the situation better?
    • How does this ad make you feel? Is this an accident, or did the advertiser intend it?
    • What message is the ad trying to get you to believe?
    • What values and lifestyles are represented by this ad?
    • What isn’t the ad saying? Does it show anything bad about alcohol? 

The aim of this exercise is to help your child better understand an ad and challenge the message behind it. It’s meant to help your child realize that they don’t have to accept an advertiser’s message at face value.

Start the Conversation on Underage Drinking Today

You can’t always control all the advertising your child gets exposed to, but you can empower them to think critically and make smart decisions. The conversations you have with your child about drinking will have a bigger impact than you think! Teaching your teenagers to evaluate advertisements and question the purpose behind them is a critical first step in allowing them to make smart decisions.

Unsure of how to approach a conversation about drinking with your child? Check out our list of talking points to help guide the conversation.

Ryan Shafer

Ryan Shafer is a Community Development Specialist with the Clay County Health Center in Liberty Missouri. In 2015 he earned his master’s in public health from the University of Missouri focusing on policy and behavior change. As a Community Development Specialist he works with numerous school coalitions on implementing tobacco and alcohol prevention programs based on the latest research available. He is passionate about improving the health of communities through creating partnerships, implementing policies, and use of best practices to progress health equity for all.


1. Federal Trade Commission. (2014). Self-Regulation in the Alcohol Industry

2. Collins, R. L., Martino, S. C., Kovalchik, S. A., Becker, K. M., Shadel, W. G., & D’Amico, E. J. (May 2016). Alcohol advertising exposure among middle school–age youth: An assessment across all media and venues. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 77(3), 384–392

3. Collins, Rebecca L., Phyllis L. Ellickson, Daniel F. McCaffrey, and Katrin Hambarsoomian, Forging the Link Between Alcohol Advertising and Underage Drinking. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2006. Accessed on June 10th, 2019 Available at:

4. Tanski SE, McClure AC, Li Z, et al. Cued Recall of Alcohol Advertising on Television and Underage Drinking Behavior. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(3):264–271. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.3345

5. L.B. Snyder, F.F. Milici, M. Slater, H. Sun, and Y. Strizhakova, “Effects of Alcohol Advertising Exposure on Drinking Among Youth,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 160 (2006): 18-24

6. GfK Roper Youth Report. Americans age 13-17.2016 Accessed on June 27th, 2019. Available at: 

The Secret Sauce of De-Stressing

This month, accomplished author and co-founder of The Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, Barbara C. Unell, writes about how parents can help their children cope with stress to be more resilient.

Sources of Stress In Children’s Lives

Children get stressed when they experience simple frustrations, such as getting a bad grade on a test or not wanting to clean their rooms. They also get stressed when big things happen, like when someone they love dies or when they are put down consistently. As parents, we know we can’t prevent our children from experiencing stress, but we can be a buffer from stress rather than a creator or cause of stress.

How Children Learn To Respond To Stress

“Whew! I’m glad THEY’RE gone. They yelled at me and stress me out!” shouts 10-year-old Makela as friends of her family leave her house.

“Where did she get THAT?” her mom asks me, telling the story in disbelief. “How could our friends be stressful? They just didn’t like it when Makela spilled her milk, so they yelled at her. What’s the big deal?”

Where DO children get “that” and many other stress responses? From everyday life, of course. And sometimes that everyday life stress is created by adults in the way they respond to children.

In fact, the way adults respond to a child’s behavior (from infant crying onward) is as important as how they respond to a temperature. When children are frustrated, angry, sad or disappointed, they need adult caregivers to be empathic and teach them how and why to self-calm; follow rules, boundaries and limits; and problem-solve, all with unconditional love. That’s how caring, supportive and protective adults help prevent stress from becoming dangerous to children’s brains and bodies.

How can parents learn to teach children helpful coping skills to manage anxiety and anger and become friends with change? The positive teaching tools in our book, Discipline with Love and Limits, do just that. It gives readers specific “what to do’s” for building positive relationships with children and teaching them how to deal with the stress of life in over 100 common situations.

The One Factor That Can Help Prevent Stress From Becoming Toxic

Why is teaching coping skills so important to a child’s health and well-being? The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has shared groundbreaking research demonstrating that the one factor that can help prevent stress from becoming toxic—and therefore damaging to a child’s brain and body for life—is consistent caring, supportive and protective adults in a child’s life, as many as possible.

When our children are exposed to positive parenting by those adults, they learn: 

  • healthy coping skills
  • good problem-solving strategies
  • the ability to delay gratification
  • how to handle mistakes
  • the ability to self-regulate and to tolerate frustration

These all lead to positive outcomes in health, learning and behavior.

Putting A Plan Into Action

When we teach coping behaviors to our children, we reduce stress so it becomes a teachable moment leading to resilience. In short, we want to help all parents and everyone who cares for and about a child to be a buffer from stress, not a creator or cause of stress. This doesn’t mean that we can prevent our children from experiencing stress—that is impossible. Children get stressed when they experience simple frustrations, such as when they aren’t picked for the team or don’t want to go to bed. And they also get stressed when big things happen—when their parents get divorced, they are spanked, abused or ignored. This kind of stress can become toxic to our children (see Additional Information below).

We know that our good mental, physical and emotional health—both children’s and adults’—depends on not letting the adversity of all or just some of these experiences become toxic by building coping skills, resilience, and tolerance.  When our children get upset, they need to be taught how to get back a sense of hope, gratitude, possibility. Caring, supportive and protective parenting does just that.

When we use caring, supportive, protective parenting, we allow our children to fail and then help them develop tools to avoid that same failure in the future. Above all, we: 

  • Care about our children’s learning to cope with life’s difficulties with optimism.
  • Support our children’s efforts to succeed, even if that effort may lead to failure.
  • Protect them from dangers of life, while allowing them the freedom to explore their world, make mistakes and learn from them.

Every child deserves nothing less. In this way, every parent has the opportunity to discipline with love and limits…and that is the secret sauce of de-stressing that’s healthy for all.

© 2019 Barbara C. Unell

Barbara C. UnellBarbara C. Unell is a grateful mother, grandmother, parent-educator, journalist and social entrepreneur, whose latest book, Discipline with Love and Limits, has sold over 1 million copies. The co-author of over 15 books on parenting, Barbara is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization, The Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, dedicated to preventing toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences. Together with teachers, healthcare practitioners and all who champion kindness, compassion and empathy, she is passionate about translating science into practical, proven, positive, and sustainable solutions of change that lead to optimum health, learning and behavior for us all.

Additional Information

The American Academy of Pediatrics

The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was conducted with over 17,000 middle and upper-middle class adults from 1995 to 1997 by researchers from Kaiser Permanente and The Centers for Disease Control. The stunning results of the study, and other groundbreaking neurological and follow-up biological, as well as behavioral research, has led leaders of The American Academy of Pediatrics to release a new Policy Statement in December 2018 recommending that primary care pediatrics meet its fundamental responsibility to help parents teach their child acceptable behavior and protect them from harm.

Three Kinds of Responses to Stress 

According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child“It’s important to distinguish among three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. As described below, these three terms refer to the stress response systems’ effects on the body, not to the stressful event or experience itself:

  • Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.
  • Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.
  • Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”

What To Do If You Find Out An Adult Is Providing Alcohol

Mother comforting her son

This month, Laura Bruce, describes a dilemma parents commonly discuss with her in her role as a prevention specialist.

“There were two kids passed out on the couch.”

This is what my son just told me. It was one of those special moments when my teenager actually opened up to me about his weekend and his friends. He was vulnerable, and I could tell that he was scared I was going to get really mad. I tried really hard to maintain composure, just listening, waiting for him to tell me more. He explained that he didn’t drink but all his friends did, some of them drinking so much they passed out. I ask about the parents, and he shared that they were upstairs and they knew that everyone was drinking— it was the parents who bought the alcohol. Then he went quiet–he really didn’t want me to dislike those parents or his friends. I consoled my son, thanking him for confiding in me and telling him I was so proud for not drinking. I told him that he can always call me if kids start drinking and I’d come get him ASAP. I gave him a hug.

Phew. My heart pounded as I left the conversation. On one hand, my kid was fine. He did the right thing and I’m so glad he was honest with me. On the other hand, I was furious that this parent provided alcohol to MY kid and his friends. Didn’t they know they were setting up kids for a host of immediate and long-term problems?  

Nancy B. Kansas City, Missouri

Alarming Stats

In my job as a prevention specialist, I hear stories like this from parents all the time. They’re angry that the providers of alcohol are other adults or parents who should know better.

The alarming truth is that kids in the Kansas City Northland rarely get alcohol from retailers; their source is usually older friends or family members. In the Missouri Student Survey conducted in 2018, 62.2% of adolescents claimed to have acquired alcohol through a friend, while 41.6% stated that they got alcohol through family members. And while parents may think they’re doing the right thing because they’re “supervising” the situation, the reality is that they’re contributing to the problem.

Now What?

As a parent, the steps you take today will have a profound impact on the health and future well-being of your children. That’s why it’s crucial to speak up and play a proactive role in preventing underage drinking. Parent Up provides a ton of resources for having conversations with your child about underage drinking so they’re more likely to make the right decision in the moment.   

If you find yourself in a sticky situation similar to Nancy’s in the story above, you may feel conflicted on what to do. Here are a few approaches you can take if you discover that other adults or parents are providing alcohol or allowing underage drinking:

  • Call law enforcement
  • Contact the adult directly
  • Notify your school or other parents

If you don’t feel comfortable taking these steps or they’re not the best options for your situation, we’ve created a warning letter you can send. It’s a sensitively written letter that informs the adult that it is known they provided alcohol to minors and outlines the dangers associated with underage drinking. Visit our Parent Warning Letter webpage for more information on how to use this resource.

We’re Here To Help

At Parent Up, our mission is to equip parents with facts, resources and tools to prevent underage drinking in the Northland. To learn more about what you can do to prevent underage drinking, check out our collection of online tools and resources!

Laura Bruce
Laura Bruce
Program Director Specialist

Laura Bruce is the Program Development Specialist at Tri-County Mental Health Services, Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri.  She is a certified prevention specialist and enjoys the challenge of proactively working to reduce and prevent problems that affect everyone in our community.  In her current role, she works with multiple coalitions throughout the Kansas City Northland with the aim of reducing drug and alcohol use among youth. Using programs like Parent Up, we work to mobilize our community and parents to protect area youth from the harmful effects of underage drinking.

Alcohol and the Teen Brain

Sad Drunk Woman on Armchair with Empty Bottles

This month Elise Bennett, a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist in Kansas City, Missouri, writes about why teenagers are more vulnerable to alcohol, the impact alcohol has on the teen brain, and what you can do as a parent to prevent underage drinking.

Alcohol and the Teen Brain

The brain is not fully developed until at least the mid-twenties with the adolescent years being a crucial period in brain development. Because of this, teens are much more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol than adults.

Many of the teens that I work with in my practice are transparent about using alcohol as a coping strategy to manage their stress, depression, or anxiety. Since the alcohol often perpetuates the problem, a teen drinks more and more in a setting looking for the “benefits” they see marketed for alcohol in movies and the media.

Why Teens are More Vulnerable to Harmful Effects of Alcohol

The part of the brain undergoing the most growth during the adolescent years is the portion involved in impulse control, rule learning, and decision making. Developmentally, teens are in a stage where they don’t believe bad things will actually happen to them. Their ability to weigh risk versus reward is underdeveloped. This means decision making is often weighted more heavily toward the option that feels most fun in the moment without much consideration for the long-term impact.

Making healthy choices can even be seen in more benign examples of how teens weigh the importance of their schoolwork. When given the option of receiving five dollars for each day in a week they completed their homework or $50 on Friday if they complete their homework every day, an overwhelming number of teens chose to receive the instant gratification of having five dollars in their pocket. Similarly, teens that I work with describe the difficulty of choosing between the hope that consuming alcohol will be fun in the moment or delaying the instant gratification to maintain trust and respect from their parents.

Adolescent drinking beer - alcoholism among young adults
 Teens are in a stage of development where they don’t believe bad things will actually happen to them.

The Short and Long-term Consequences of Underage Drinking

A central nervous system depressant, alcohol slows down the brain and breathing, and heart rate and consciousness follow. In the short term, alcohol creates noticeable deficits in memory, impaired speech, impaired decision making, loss of muscle growth, deregulated sleep, and decreased ability to manage stress.

Because the teen brain is still building its architecture, alcohol and other drugs have the possibility of changing the trajectory of brain development. In the longer term, alcohol creates diminished gray matter in the brain, inability to think abstractly, memory loss, and loss of attention span.

While most cells in the body regenerate, cells damaged in the brain by alcohol are not replaced.

What Parents Can Do To Prevent Underage Drinking

Teens crave connection with their parents. I hear from parents regularly that they believe they are no longer relevant to their children once they hit adolescence. The reality, however, is that parents have the most influence over whether or not a teen chooses to drink underage. Over and over again, teen clients of mine verbalize the desire for their parents to ask them questions about their friends, their hobbies, and their identity.

Talking to your children, limiting access and refusing to give alcohol to your children are the most effective ways to impact an adolescent’s alcohol consumption.

Here are more ways you can minimize your teen’s risk of underage drinking:

  • Talk to other parents about not having alcohol at parties with your child.
  • Check in with your teenager before and after they go out.
  • Set clear expectations for behavior.
  • Practice good supervision and consistent discipline.
  • Minimize conflict in the family.
  • Eat dinner as a family as often as possible—this is a good time to talk about the issues your children face in a non-threatening way.

As a parent, you have the power to affect positive change in your children’s lives. Learn more about what you can do to prevent underage drinking!


Elise Bennett

Elise Bennett is a Clinically Licensed Therapist who works with adolescents, adults, and families. Elise works very closely with area school districts to collaborate treatment plans and mental health outcomes to benefit both her clients and the Northland adolescent community. Elise sits on the Executive Board for the Missouri Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the Greater Kansas City Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the Liberty Alliance for Youth. She has extensive lobbying, workshop and conference presentation experience including guest lecturing at area Universities and social service organizations.

Welcome to the Parent Up Blog

As parents, we understand how difficult it can be to navigate tough topics with our children. We also understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by advice and opinions from the internet, television, books, talk shows, other parents, social media and more!

At Parent Up, our mission is to prevent underage drinking in the Northland through equipping parents with facts, resources and tools. The aim of our new blog is to provide practical, up-to-date information about parenting from local experts and parents like you.

Together, we can prevent underage drinking and drug use to keep our children safe!

What to Expect from the Parent Up Blog:

  • Expertise from local health care professionals, educators and law enforcement
  • Information on the root causes of underage drinking and how to address them
  • The latest research and trends relating to underage drinking, drug use and mental health
  • Stories from local parents about how they have addressed difficult issues with their children

Where to start?

Alcohol kills more teens than all other illegal drugs combined, which is why our mission is so important! The first thing you can do to prevent underage drinking or any other drug use is to start a conversation with your children. Research shows that parents have the most influence on whether or not their child drinks. What you say really does matter.

Here are some questions you can ask to open up the communication:

  • What are other kids at school saying about alcohol and drugs?
  • What do you think about drinking and drugs?
  • What worries or questions do you have about drinking?
  • [When watching TV or movies together that portray underage drinking] What do you think would happen if teens drank like this in real life?

Remember to ask open ended questions and to listen without judgement. Check out more of ourtips for starting the conversation on underage drinking with your children and teens.

We’d Love to Hear from YOU

Do you have ideas on what content you’d like to see on the blog? Leave them in the comments below! Would you like to contribute to the blog and guest post? Email us at!

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