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Underage drinking: Talking to your teen about alcohol

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 27, 2021.

Think your teen is too young for 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.

In an effort to become more independent, teens begin to take risks and seek out new and thrilling situations. This might include drinking alcohol. Teens also begin to feel more self-conscious and look to friends and the media for clues on how they measure up. Those who don't feel like they fit in might experiment with alcohol to please friends. Teens might also try drinking to cope with the stress of school or transitions, such as the move from middle school to high school.

Talking about underage drinking

You might be unsure of what to say and your teen might try to dodge the conversation. To start the discussion, choose a time when you are both relaxed. Don't worry about covering everything. If you talk often, you might have a greater impact on your teen than if you talk only once.

When you talk about underage drinking:

  • Ask your teen's views. Find out what your teen thinks about alcohol. If your teen is interested in drinking, ask why.
  • 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 teen drinking, and appeal to your teen's self-respect. If you have a family history of alcoholism, be honest. Explain that your teen might be more vulnerable to unhealthy alcohol use.
  • 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 did, you might admit a painful moment related to your drinking.

Consequences of underage drinking

Share with your teen some facts about the dangers of teen alcohol use. Underage drinking can lead to:

  • Alcohol-related fatalities. Alcohol-related traffic crashes 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. Adolescent binge drinking also can increase the risk of alcohol addiction later in life.
  • Violent crime. Teens who drink are more likely to be hurt in a violent crime, such as rape, assault or robbery.

Other ways to prevent underage drinking

In addition to talking to your teen:

  • Support your teen. Having a trusting relationship can help prevent your teen from experimenting with alcohol. Spend time together and make it easy for your teen to talk to you.
  • 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.
  • 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. Work with other parents to monitor what your kids are doing and keep them safe.

Seeking help for underage drinking

If you think your teen might be misusing alcohol, contact your teen's doctor or a counselor who specializes in treating alcoholism. Teens who misuse alcohol 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.

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