Underage drinking is a concern for all parents. It can happen 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.
It’s important for parents to understand the reasons their child may experiment with alcohol. You should also know, how it can become an addiction and how to treat that addiction. Even more important is your role in talking with your child about the dangers of underage drinking. Research shows that the earlier a child starts drinking, the greater the likelihood they will abuse alcohol later in life.
Binge drinking also is dangerous. This is when you drink an excessive amount of alcohol at one time. 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 health
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 get pressured by their friends or peers. Peer pressure may take the form of bullying. Peers also will tell your child that alcohol makes them feel good and gives them confidence. They may say 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 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 helps reduce 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. Children of a parent who binge drinks, for example, are more likely to binge drink. If you are a parent and you drink, do so in moderation. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t keep an excessive amount of alcohol in your house. 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. These can include blackouts, alcohol poisoning, injuries and accidents, risky behavior, negative effects on the brain, and death.
- 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 or someone else they trust.
- Legal and academic consequences. Explain the long-term impact of underage drinking and drinking and driving (losing your license, having an arrest record). Underage drinking and drinking and driving can lead to losing a spot on a school team or club. It can also mean losing a college scholarship. Even worse, someone could be injured or even killed by a decision to drink and drive.
- 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 in to 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. This can include not serving alcohol at parties, and adult supervision when friends are over.
Keep alcohol out of your own home or under lock and key. Establish strict rules and consequences for underage drinking. Some parents create a written agreement or contract with their children. This can include consequences for underage drinking or drinking and driving. Consequences may be a loss of driving privileges, loss of free time, earlier curfews, or paying fines.
Things to consider
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 they 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, or an inpatient or residential treatment program (where your child stays until they have completed treatment). There are also outpatient treatment plans (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 to ask 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? What if he or she is over 18?
- 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.