The Best Things Parents Can Do to Prevent Teenage Drinking

teenage boy with his dad and grandfather

If it seems like teenagers today are being bombarded with advertising and subliminal messages that encourage drinking, it isn’t a figment of your imagination. Messages promoting the social benefits of alcohol consumption seem to be everywhere.

And they must be getting through. The latest statistics on underage drinking show that nearly 10 million 12- to 20-year-olds are drinking. And about 6 million young people report they are engaging in binge drinking. This data is according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Log into Facebook and take a look at the photos of drinking and carousing posted by teenagers. Is it any wonder they don’t want their parents to view their social media pages and do everything they can to foil parental snooping and interference?

What about television advertising? Granted, the TV ads come with the disclaimer and the purported recommendation to “drink responsibly,” but is that enough? When teens see beer ads with males and females interacting and having a terrific time – and show beer prominently displayed, being consumed, held high in a toast – what message is getting through? It’s likely not to drink responsibly, especially since that is a final mention and the visual and auditory elements of the ad, the subtle encouragement to drink the product and have fun, have already been imprinted on teen minds.

Then, there is also the matter of television programming. Quick, think what sit-com or drama or crime show or cooking show or almost any other show – with the exception of cartoons on a family channel or Disney network—doesn’t have scenes or a storyline where alcohol and/or drugs are involved? The comedy or drama or crime show portrays characters drinking to forget their troubles or drinking socially or getting drunk and crashing a car or mixing alcohol and drugs.

Parents, concerned loved ones and friends might lament this societal fixation on drinking and believe that nothing can be done to prevent teenage drinking. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are strategies that parents can and should employ to do all they can to ensure their teenage children have the opportunity to grow up in a safe and non-threatening environment, to teach them the dangers and risks associated with drinking, and to be there for them as a sounding board for discussions about peer pressure and other inducements to participate in underage drinking.

Facts About Underage Drinking

Alcohol is the drug of choice for young people. According to Monitoring the Future, by the 8th grade, three out of 10 teens have had at least one drink. By the 10th grade, more than half of teens have had a drink. By the time they reach the 12th grade, seven in 10 teens have had a drink.

In 2011, 9.7 million young people ages 12 to 20 reported that they drank alcohol beyond “just a few sips” in the last month. This figure comes from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2011.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that alcohol is involved in about 5,000 teen deaths each year. This breaks out to about 1,900 deaths due to motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 deaths from homicides, 1,200 deaths from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns and drowning, and 500 deaths from suicide.

As for injuries, in 2008 alone, according to NIAAA data, about 190,000 people under the age of 21 visited an emergency room for alcohol-related injuries.

The economic cost of underage drinking in 2006 was estimated $27 billion.

While young people drink less often than adults, when they do drink, they drink more – an average of five drinks per occasion. This is the classic definition of binge drinking.

Alcohol consumption among people aged 12 to 20 accounts for 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States.

Long-Term Consequences of Underage Drinking

It has long been known that alcohol affects the development of the human brain. More recent findings show that young people’s brains continue to develop until they are well into their 20s. During the adolescent years, the brain undergoes significant growth and remodeling.

Consumption of alcohol during the formative years of teen brain development can significantly alter this development. Potentially affecting both brain structure and function, alcohol consumption during the teenage years may also cause cognitive or learning problems.

Early alcohol consumption can also increase the risk of alcohol problems later in life. People who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives. Among students who began drinking at age 15, 38 percent will later develop alcohol dependence. Among students who hold off starting drinking until the age of 20, about 10 percent will subsequently become dependent on alcohol.

Risk-taking is common among adolescents. As they mature, young children, now adolescents, find themselves naturally trying to assert some form of independence, to look for new challenges, to discover and try out new things – and begin to take risks.

Many young people are attracted to the risk of underage drinking. While they often want to experiment and try alcohol, they are generally uninformed about the damage alcohol can do to their health and how it impacts their behavior.

Other developmental factors that contribute to underage drinking include peer pressure, increased independence and unsupervised time, and increased responsibility and stress.

Underage drinking can affect normal developmental trajectories and negatively affect development. Results can include failure at school, getting into trouble with the law and an increased likelihood of developing an addiction to alcohol.

Other consequences of teen drinking include:

  • Social problems – such as fighting
  • Physical problems – illnesses and hangovers
  • Disruption of growth and sexual development
  • Physical and sexual assault – underage drinkers are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault after drinking than others their age who do not drink
  • Higher risk for suicide and homicide
  • Alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries
  • Problems with memory
  • Impaired judgment – drinking can lead to poor decisions about engaging in risky behavior, including drinking and driving, sexual activity (including unprotected sex), and aggressive or violent behavior
  • Abuse of other drugs – drinking alcohol is associated with the use of other drugs
  • Changes in brain development that may have life-long effects
  • Death from alcohol poisoning

(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012. Fact Sheets: Underage Drinking)

How Parents Can Help Prevent Underage Drinking

Parents are a big part of the strategy to prevent underage drinking. In fact, studies have shown that teens pay a great deal of attention to the attitudes and values of their parents when it comes to their own decision-making about when to begin drinking. Some 80 percent say their parents are the major influencer about when they will start drinking.

Be careful about the kinds of messages sent to teens. For example, parents may think that they are sending a message about drinking in moderation by allowing their teens to drink at home and by drinking at home themselves. But in reality, what the teens come away with is the message that underage drinking is OK – and not just at home.

A better plan: For parents who intend to drink at home, start off with one drink and have no more than two before switching to soda, juice, water or other non-alcoholic drink. Remember that teens are always watching how adults behave around alcohol. Even if parents think the teens are doing homework, playing video games or hanging out with their friends, if they’re within sight, teens are watching what their parents do like a hawk.

Communication with teens about what alcohol can do is also important. It may seem like beer is harmless, but consuming too much can have the same debilitating effect as any other kind of alcohol consumed.

Extracurricular activities – Parents often have no idea how to keep their teens occupied when school is out for the summer. The idea that the kids are just lounging around the house with no supervision is enough to send any parent into a fit of anxiety. Since it is neither advisable nor possible to keep teens locked up at home, a better strategy may be to arrange for extracurricular activities that the teens can engage in.

Get them involved in community activities. Once the teen becomes actively engaged in some community sport, such as a baseball team, or becoming the team leader for activities for younger siblings, the teen has less time to think about going off and getting involved with peers and drinking alcohol just to pass the time or get high.

Policies at schools – Parents can also become involved in school activities and policies aimed at preventing underage drinking. Parents should know, for example, which schools provide forums that explain alcohol’s effects on teen bodies and what the possible outcomes are for drinking and driving. Know which guidance counselors are available to discuss the subject of alcohol and its risks with students. Research shows that encouraging students to talk about and understand the dangers of alcohol is a good way to keep them from taking up with alcohol in the first place.

Community and policy strategies – Of course, preventing underage drinking means that members of the community band together to work toward effective policies that discourage the consumption of alcohol by minors. This includes, but is not limited to, efforts to police and prosecute store owners who sell alcohol to minors, charging kids who are caught with possession of alcohol as a misdemeanor (which may result in jail time), educational efforts about the consequences of underage drinking, and monitoring of advertising of alcohol in the community.

How to Talk With Teens About Drinking

Parents may have difficulty talking with their children about any number of subjects, including sex, money, and the use of drugs and alcohol. Nevertheless, each of these is worthy of careful discussion – at the right place and time. One that shouldn’t wait involves the topic of underage drinking. But what should parents say to their kids about the dangers of alcohol? How young can such discussions begin? And, more importantly, how should parents talk with them? Here are some answers, along with some sobering reminders about underage alcohol consumption.

Here is a shocker for many parents. Thinking that their adolescent son or daughter is immune to the influence of peers and drinking alcohol is a big mistake. The fact is that about 40 percent of adolescents have tried alcohol by the time they reach eighth grade.

Ideally, parents should begin conversations about alcohol early. In fact, natural curiosity leads children to start to think about alcohol differently when they’re between the ages of 9 and 13. That’s when many of them start to believe that drinking alcohol is OK, even at their age, and begin to experiment with it in various forms. Whatever’s around the house is the first and easiest route.

Children who start drinking alcohol before the age of 15 are seven times more likely to experience problems with alcohol as adults. While about 10 percent of 10-year-olds say they’ve tried drinking, that number skyrockets to 50 percent by age 15.

Key to having a conversation with children about underage drinking is to understand why it is that kids drink in the first place. Besides curiosity, which begins at a young age, there are several reasons why kids turn to alcohol – usually in their teenage years.

Remember that teens are experiencing a lot of physical and emotional changes – many of them painful and frightening and not particularly easy to handle. They need a lot of support and encouragement during this confusing time just to navigate the turbulent teenage years.

It’s also important to note that children turn to drinking not for a single reason, but usually as the result of a combination of stressors.

  • Transitions – When a child moves from middle school to junior high, there’s a lot of stress surrounding the transition. Other important life events that can trigger alcohol experimentation include the breakup or divorce of parents, and moving the household to a different location. What’s needed: Reassurance to children that this tough time won’t last forever, that things will get easier, and parents will be there for them. Make sure to say that drinking isn’t the solution to any problem.
  • Escaping Stress – Children worry about getting good grades, taking the right classes, participating in the right mix of extracurricular activities and sports, about fitting in, and how they look. Any of these stresses may cause them to use alcohol as a means of escape. What may help: Encourage children to get actively involved in sports and/or extracurricular activities as a healthier means of coping with stress. Let them know that alcohol won’t alleviate stress. It may dull it for a while, but stress will roar back even worse.
  • Reacting to Environment – If children are exposed to excessive drinking by parents or other siblings or adults in the home, they are much more likely to engage in drinking themselves. If parents drink, make sure to do so responsibly. Set a good example by drinking in moderation. And make sure the children know that underage drinking is not acceptable and won’t be tolerated.
  • Genetics – Studies have shown that children who come from families with a history of alcoholism are at an increased risk for alcohol abuse or dependence. Alcoholism may very well run in the family. If so, the responsible thing to do is to have a candid discussion with children about the seriousness of the disease.
  • Increased Curiosity – While curiosity begins young, it only intensifies as children reach their teenage years. They begin taking chances, trying new things that may include experimenting with alcohol. Parents need to remind their children about the risks and dangers of underage drinking. In addition, make sure they know how you feel about underage drinking: it’s not allowed.
  • Peer Pressure – Most kids face peer pressure at one time or another. They’re trying hard to fit in, to have others like them, to be popular and accepted. They feel if they aren’t part of the “in” crowd, they’re losers. Many times, when children are in social settings where other teens are drinking, they feel pressure to do the same. After all, “everyone else is doing it.” Parents can help teens by giving them the self-confidence they need by learning different and effective ways to say no to such invitations. They might also stress that any person who’s a real friend would never pressure them to drink.
  • More Freedom Outside the Home – As children enter their teenage years, they start spending more time outside the home and away from parents and other family members. Much of the time they’re with their friends. This increased freedom may lead to situations where the children are exposed to alcohol use – and are tempted or pressured to drink. Yes, parents do need to give their children the space they require to grow, but parents also need to know where their children are at all times. Keep track of their whereabouts as well as the companions they’re with. If they’re at a friend’s house, for example, make sure a responsible adult is in attendance. The idea is to avoid having idle hours without adult supervision (or at least adults in the home) where the kids may start drinking.

Be Consistent and Loving, but Firm

Parents can’t be with their teens 24/7. But parents can and should do the best they can to prepare their teens to be able to handle pressure and temptations to use alcohol while they’re children. It is a big part of parental responsibility. In fact, parents have the best chance of helping shape their attitudes and beliefs about alcohol by virtue of their own behavior.

Above all, be loving parents. Keep the lines of communication open and honest. You’re in this together with your children and want the best for their future. Give them the solid foundation they need to grow up with self-confidence, to be able to face life’s challenges and stresses and opportunities – without turning to alcohol.

Keep conversations going from their early childhood through adolescence and teenage years. Be consistent, stay on message, be loving, but firm, and always be there for your children.

It’s the best thing parents can do to prevent underage drinking.

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