Underage drinking: Talking to your teen about alcohol
Medically reviewed on Nov 29, 2016
Think your teen is too young for you to start a conversation about underage drinking? Think again.
Early adolescence is when some children begin experimenting with alcohol or feeling pressure to drink. To encourage your teen to avoid alcohol, talk to him or her about the risks and the importance of making good decisions.
Why teens drink
Teens are particularly vulnerable to alcohol use. Coping with the stress of fitting in and challenging transitions, such as going from middle school to high school, moving, or dealing with the effects of divorce, might influence a teen to drink. Also, your teen might have trouble understanding that his or her actions can have harmful consequences.
Other risk factors include:
- Family problems, such as conflict or parental alcohol abuse
- A history of childhood abuse or other major trauma
- Behavior, school or mental health problems
- Close friendships with teens who drink or use other drugs
Consequences of underage drinking
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.
- 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.
- Violent crime.Teens who drink are more likely to be hurt in a violent crime, such as rape, assault or robbery.
Talking about underage drinking
You might be unsure of what to say to your teen about underage drinking, and your teen might try to dodge the conversation. To start the discussion, choose a time when you and your teen are relaxed. Don't worry about covering everything. If you talk often, you might have a greater impact on your teen than if you only talk once.
When you talk about underage drinking:
- Ask your teen's views. Find out what your teen thinks about alcohol.
- 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 can also cause sadness and anger.
- Discuss reasons not to drink. Explain the risks of alcohol, and appeal to your teen's self-respect. If you have a family history of alcoholism or drinking problems, be honest. Explain that your teen might be more vulnerable to developing a drinking problem.
- 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 for questions. Your teen might ask if you drank alcohol when you were underage. If you chose to drink, share an example of a negative consequence of your drinking.
Other ways to prevent underage drinking
In addition to talking to your teen:
- Support your teen. 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 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. Also, make sure your teen knows the drinking laws.
- 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, talk to him or her. Enforce the consequences you've established. 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.
It's never too soon to start talking to your teen about underage alcohol use. By talking now, you'll help give your teen the guidance and support necessary to make good choices.