Child Safety - Miller & Zois

Alcohol Safety for Teenagers

A major issue that parents must contend with as their children become teenagers is the introduction of alcohol, which is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, by age fifteen about 33% of teens have had at least one drink and by age 18, that statistic rises to 60%. In fact, in the United States 11% of all alcohol consumed is done so by children aged 12 through 20.

There are many harmful effects that drinking alcohol can have on young and newly developing teens, as well as the negative consequences that may potentially arise from their actions while inebriated. This makes it an extremely important responsibility for parents to be informed and ready to speak to their children on the dangers of underage drinking.

Ultimately, it will be your child’s own personal decision as to where and when they will try drinking alcohol for the first time. However, as a parent you can ensure that when the time comes, your child has the information they need to make an informed, educated choice.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Alcohol is the result of fermentation, which is a process that uses yeast and bacteria to change the sugars in our food into ethanol. When we drink it, the ethanol is absorbed into our bloodstream where it begins to affect and slow down our central nervous system, which is the source of all control over our bodily functions.

This means that drinking alcohol will alter a person’s perceptions, emotions, movement, vision, and hearing. For teenagers, whose young brains are still in the process of maturing, this effect could be very detrimental to their body’s development.

Why do Teens Drink?

It’s almost universally known by Americans that the legal drinking age is twenty-one years old, so why is it that nearly one-third of teenagers have had an alcoholic beverage by the age of fifteen? There are several possible factors that contribute to this.

Teenagers are particularly susceptible to alcohol use because as they grow and become more independent, they begin to seek out new and exhilarating situations that push the boundaries of what they have already experienced as a child. To them, trying alcohol is another new way to test these boundaries.

Additionally, insecurity can play a huge part in a teenager’s decision to try alcohol. With puberty comes an array of new feelings for teens, especially insecurity and embarrassment, and drinking alcohol can become a way to feel less self-conscious in front of their friends.

Another reason that your teenager may choose to try alcohol may involve the stress of school and academic expectations, or the stress that is experienced as they transition from middle school to high school.

Ultimately, the reason why your teenager may choose to try alcohol for the first time could be one of these or a combination of many. Regardless of the reason, the most important and most effective thing that you can do as a parent is to know how to talk to your child about underage drinking so that they can make a more informed choice when the opportunity eventually presents itself.

How is Alcohol Dangerous for Teens?

Alcohol can affect a developing teenager’s mind and body very differently from a fully grown adult, meaning that there are even more severe effects and consequences tied to underage drinking and alcohol abuse.

  • Negative influence on adult brain structure: New research suggests that alcohol abuse as a teenager can influence the development of your brain structure as an adult by reducing your brain’s ability to complete memory-oriented tasks and damages the development of your brain’s frontal lobes – affecting your memory, motor skills, and coordination.
  • Increased risk of adult alcoholism: The earlier you start drinking, the more likely you are to develop a lifelong problem with alcohol abuse.
  • Co-occurring disorders: Frequent alcohol abuse has been tied to several mental disorders, including low self-esteem, anxiety, antisocial behavior, and an increased dependency on other drugs.
  • Long-term health conditions: Chronic health issues tied to alcohol abuse includes cirrhosis of the liver, anemia, hypertension, pancreatitis, and heart problems, among others. Continued alcohol abuse into adulthood will only wreak havoc on your health.
How do I Talk to my Teen About Drinking?

Underage drinking can be a difficult subject to broach with your teenager. It is an uncomfortable subject for both parties, especially a teenager trying to manage all the frustrating new emotions that come with growing up. The most important thing for parents to remember is that this isn’t an exact science and they shouldn’t worry about covering absolutely everything.

In fact, it could be far more impactful to talk often about the subject so that there can be an open dialogue established with your children to come back to with new questions that they encounter as they navigate their teenage years. There are a few things that parents should keep in mind when talking to their teenagers that may help the dialogue move forward:

  • Ask your teen what their views are on alcohol: Make a point to ask your teen about their views on alcohol and if they have any interest in it. If they express any interest, work together to figure out why.
  • Debunk any myths your teen may have about underage drinking: It’s very common for teenagers to believe common myths about drinking, such as the idea that drinking will make them happy or popular. Take the time to explain to them that this is not true, that alcohol can cause you to feel “high,” but it is a depressant that can cause anger or sadness.
  • Discuss the many reasons they have not to drink: Go over the risks that your teen could potentially face as a result of drinking. Talk to them about your family history and your family’s relationship with alcohol, especially if it means that your teen may be more vulnerable to an unhealthy relationship with drinking.
  • Create a plan for your teen to deal with peer pressure: Most likely, your teen will eventually face peer pressure at some point. By brainstorming ideas ahead of time, your teen will walk into any situation equipped with a plan already in mind in the case that they are peer pressured into drinking. This could be something as simple as “No thanks, but do you have any soda?”
  • Be prepared to answer their questions: Since this is a brand-new experience for your teen, they are naturally going to have many questions. It is important that you are prepared for tough questions like “did you drink when you were underage?” or “what made you want to drink alcohol for the first time?” Try not to shy away from the tough questions, and always be truthful but try to make your answer into a learning experience. If you drank under the age of 21, tell them the truth but frame it as a learning experience by admitting to a painful experience brought on by your choice to drink.

Eventually your child will encounter alcohol and face the decision as to whether they want to try it, and you most likely won’t be there to guide them like any parent would want to be. This may be a frustrating truth, however there is always something that you can do to help your child navigate their teenage years successfully and smartly. Talking openly and honestly with your teen about alcohol and the effects it will have on them is one of the most effective ways that you can prepare your teen to make smart, informed choices.

Sources and Additional Studies

Quigley, J. (2019). Alcohol Use by Youth. Pediatrics, e20191356.

Ryan, S. A., & Kokotailo, P. (2019). Alcohol Use by Youth. Pediatrics, e20191357.

Committee on Substance Abuse. (2010). Alcohol use by youth and adolescents: a pediatric concern. Pediatrics, 125(5), 1078-1087.

Tildesley, E. A., & Andrews, J. A. (2008). The development of children's intentions to use alcohol: Direct and indirect effects of parent alcohol use and parenting behaviors. Psychology of addictive behaviors, 22(3), 326.