It's easy to underestimate how early underage drinking starts — sometimes even in the preteen years — as well as the amount of alcohol teens drink and the risks involved. Still, underage drinking isn't inevitable. You can encourage your teen to avoid alcohol by talking to him or her about the risks of underage drinking and the importance of making good decisions.
Why teens drink
Teens are particularly vulnerable to alcohol use. The physical changes of puberty might make your teen feel self-conscious and more likely to take risks — such as experiment with alcohol — to fit in or please others. Also, your teen might have trouble understanding that his or her actions can have adverse consequences. Common risk factors for underage drinking include:
- Transitions, such as the move from middle school to high school or getting a driver's license
- Increased stress at home or school
- Family problems, such as conflict or parental alcohol abuse
- A history of behavior problems or mental health conditions
Consequences of underage drinking
Whatever causes a teen to drink, the consequences may be the same. For example, underage drinking can lead to:
- Alcohol-related fatalities. Alcohol-related accidents are a leading cause of teen deaths. Teen drownings, suicides and murders also have been linked with alcohol use.
- Sexual activity. Teens who drink tend to become sexually active earlier and have sex more often than do teens who don't drink. Teens who drink are also more likely to have unprotected sex than are teens who don't drink.
- School problems. Teens who drink tend to have more academic and conduct problems than do teens who don't drink. Also, drinking can lead to temporary or permanent suspension from sports and other extracurricular activities.
- Alcoholism. People who begin drinking as young teens are more likely to develop alcohol dependence than are people who wait until they're adults to drink.
- Being a victim of violent crime. Alcohol-related crimes might include rape, assault and robbery.
In addition, research shows that alcohol use may permanently distort a teen's emotional and intellectual development.
Talking about underage drinking
It can be tough to talk to your teen about underage drinking. You might be unsure of what to say, and your teen might try to dodge the conversation. To increase your odds of having a meaningful discussion, choose a time when you and your teen are relaxed. Don't worry about covering everything at once. If you talk often, you might have a greater impact on your teen than if you have only a single discussion.
When you talk about underage drinking, you might:
- Ask your teen's views. Find out what your teen knows and thinks about alcohol.
- Share facts. Explain that alcohol is a powerful drug that slows the body and mind, and that anyone can develop an alcohol problem — even a teen without risk factors for alcohol abuse.
- Debunk myths. Teens often think that drinking makes them popular or happy. Explain that alcohol can make you feel "high" but it's a depressant that also can cause sadness and anger.
- Discuss reasons not to drink. Avoid scare tactics. Instead, explain the risks and appeal to your teen's self-respect. If you have a family history of alcoholism or drinking problems, be honest with your teen. Strongly discourage your teen from trying alcohol — even as an adult — since there's a considerable chance that your teen could develop an alcohol problem, too.
- Plan ways to handle peer pressure. Brainstorm with your teen about how to respond to offers of alcohol. It might be as simple as saying, "No thanks" or "Do you have any soda?"
- Be prepared to discuss your own drinking. Your teen might ask if you drank alcohol when you were underage. If you chose not to drink, explain why. If you chose to drink, you might share an example of a negative consequence of your drinking. If you drink today, be prepared to talk about why social drinking is OK for you and not for your teen.
Other ways to prevent underage drinking
In addition to talking to your teen, consider other strategies to prevent underage drinking:
- Develop a strong relationship with your teen. Your support will help your teen build the self-esteem he or she needs to stand up to peer pressure — and live up to your expectations.
- Know your teen's activities. Pay attention to your teen's plans and whereabouts. Encourage participation in supervised after-school and weekend activities.
- Establish rules and consequences. Rules might include no underage drinking, leaving parties where alcohol is served and not riding in a car with a driver who's been drinking. Agree on the consequences of breaking the rules ahead of time — and enforce them consistently.
- Set an example. If you drink, do so only in moderation and explain to your teen why it's OK for adults to drink responsibly. Describe the rules you follow, such as not drinking and driving. Don't serve alcohol to anyone who's underage.
- Encourage healthy friendships. If your teen's friends drink, your teen is more likely to drink, too. Get to know your teen's friends and their parents.
Seeking help for underage drinking
If you suspect that your teen has been drinking — you've noticed mood changes or behavior problems, for example, or your teen has red or glazed eyes or unusual health complaints — talk to him or her. Enforce the consequences you've established so that your teen understands that using alcohol will always result in a loss of privileges.
If you think your teen might have a drinking problem, contact your teen's doctor or a counselor or other health care provider who specializes in alcohol problems. Teens who have alcohol problems aren't likely to realize it — or seek help — on their own.
Remember, it's never too soon to start talking to your teen about underage alcohol use. By broaching the topic, you'll help give your teen the guidance and support necessary to make good choices.