Underage drinking is every parent’s fear, whether you are facing the problem now or taking preventive steps for the future. Underage drinking can occur in any family, regardless of income status or ethnicity. Many parents are surprised to learn that underage drinking can start earlier than the teenage years. As a parent, it’s important for you to understand the reasons your child may experiment with alcohol, how it can become an addiction, the consequences of abusing alcohol, and treatment for an addiction. Even more important is your role in talking with your child frequently, and at a young age, about the dangers of underage drinking. Research shows that the earlier a child starts drinking, the greater the likelihood he or she will abuse alcohol later in life.
Binge drinking also is dangerous. Binge drinking is when you drink an excessive amount of alcohol at one time. If your child doesn’t drink regularly, but drinks an extreme amount at one time (such as at a party), that is considered binge drinking. Binge drinking is commonly tied to alcohol poisoning.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends that children between 12 and 17 years old avoid alcohol. As a reminder, drinking alcohol while under the age of 21 is not legal and is unsafe.
Path to improved wellness
Reasons for underage drinking: It’s important to talk to your child (at every age) about the dangers of alcohol. It’s equally important to understand why they drink. Teens often take their first alcoholic drink because they have been pressured by one or more of their friends or peers. Peer pressure may take the form of bullying. Peers also will tell your child that alcohol makes them feel good, gives them confidence, that there’s no harm in drinking, and that everyone drinks. Tell your child to expect peer pressure and encourage them to talk to you when those times occur.
Another reason your child may drink is because of increased independence or because they want to be independent. As your child gains independence, it’s important for you to continue to monitor what’s going on in their lives. Stress (school, social, home) may be another reason your child starts drinking. Teach your child ways to cope with the stress they experience at every stage of their life. Children who have suffered abuse, or have behavior or mental health problems are at an increased risk for underage drinking.
Talk to your children
Talking with your child has proven to be extremely valuable in reducing underage drinking. Parents can influence their child’s attitudes about alcohol and prepare them for the challenges ahead. Start by being a good role model. Research shows that when parents are actively involved in their child’s life, the child is less likely to drink. Being a poor role model can have negative consequences. According to research on binge drinking, for example, children of a parent who binge drinks are more likely to binge drink. If you are an adult and you drink, do so in moderation and not to excess, don’t drink and drive, and if you choose to have alcohol in your house, don’t keep an excessive amount. Other underage drinking topics you should discuss with your child include:
- The dangers of alcohol. Talk about the dangers of underage drinking and alcohol abuse. This would include:
- Blackouts: This means losing memories after drinking too much alcohol.
- Alcohol poisoning: This is when the level of alcohol in a person’s blood is so high that it’s considered poisonous. Alcohol poisoning can be deadly.
- Injuries and accidents: Underage drinking can lead to such things as falls or a car accident from driving after drinking.
- Risky behavior: These are bad choices your child could make after drinking too much alcohol. Some behaviors can lead to trouble with the law.
- Negative effects of alcohol on the brain: Your child’s brain is still developing into his or her mid 20’s.
- Coping with peer pressure. Give your children real-life examples of ways to cope with pressure from friends and classmates. Have them practice their responses with you.
- Managing stress. Tell your child that drinking away their stress is not the answer. Teach them ways to cope, such as physical exercise, listening to music, reading, watching a funny movie, writing about their stress in a diary, volunteering to help people or organizations in need, and talking with you.
- Legal and academic consequences. Explain the long-term impact of underage drinking and drinking and driving (losing your license, having an arrest record). Academically, underage drinking and drinking and driving can lead to losing a spot on a school team or club or losing a college scholarship.
- Choosing the right friends. Encourage your child to find friends and classmates who share their same goals and lifestyle choices. If they choose to hang around kids who drink, they are more likely to give into peer pressure and drink as well.
Take preventive steps: Talking with your child about the dangers of alcohol is important. However, talking is not enough. Take preventive steps, such as networking with other parents who share your same thinking and rules about underage drinking (not serving alcohol at parties, adult supervision when friends are over and at parties), keeping alcohol out of your own home or under lock and key, and establishing strict rules and consequences for underage drinking. Some parents create a written agreement or contract with their children about the consequences of underage drinking and drinking and driving (loss of driving privileges, loss of free time, earlier curfews, paying fines).
Things to consider
Abusing alcohol leads to a number of negative effects, such as:
- Injury and death (of your child or another victim).
- Risky behavior (sexual, violence, or aggression).
- Academic decline (poor grades, loss of school team participation or even a college scholarship).
- Addiction (that may lead to drug use as well).
- Poor brain development (a person’s brain is still developing into their mid 20’s).
- Alcohol poisoning (when your body gets too much alcohol at once).
Alcohol abuse doesn’t just affect your child. Negative consequences can cause harm to others as well, such as injuring or even killing another person while driving drunk.
Learn the warning signs of alcohol abuse, which can include:
- Mood changes, including depression, anger, and irritability.
- Poor grades.
- Behavior problems at work or school.
- Suddenly choosing a new group of friends, or not introducing their friends to you.
- Low energy.
- No interest in the activities or recreation he or she once enjoyed.
- Evidence of alcohol use, such as red eyes, the smell of alcohol on your child’s breath, slurred speech, or inability to concentrate.
Treatment is available in several forms. It may require individual or group counseling, an inpatient or residential treatment program (where your child lives until he or she has completed treatment), outpatient treatment (where your child leaves the house for treatment and returns home each day), hospital programs, medicine to reduce alcohol cravings, ongoing recovery support programs, and peer supports. Ask your doctor which one or combined treatment is right for your child.
Questions for your doctor
- If I suspect my child has been drinking, how do I know if my child is abusing alcohol or if it is a one-time thing?
- If my child is under 18, can I authorize treatment?
- How do I have a conversation with my child about alcohol if my spouse drinks in moderation (but every day) and I don’t?
- Is alcoholism hereditary?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.