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Underage Drinking: How To Talk With Your Child About Alcohol Use

Why to Have the Alcohol Talk Early Why to Have the Alcohol Talk Early

How much do young people drink? Many adults assume it's not a lot, but the latest research paints a very different picture. Here are some statistics that may surprise you:

  • People aged 12 to 20 drink nearly 4% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S.

  • Nearly 25% of 14-to-15-year-olds admit they've had at least one drink in their lifetime.

  • Around 4.2 million teens say they went on a drinking binge at least once in the last month.

  • 44% of all high schoolers who binge drink consume 8 or more drinks in a row.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) views underage drinking as a serious health issue. Here's what parents and caregivers need to know about underage drinking and how you can help kids make healthy choices about alcohol, now and in the future.

Just how dangerous is underage drinking?

With so many other issues affecting young people right now, teen alcohol use may not seem like that big a deal. You might recall your own early experiences and figure that some drinking can be expected. But when we look at alcohol's effect on a child's developing brain, the risks become clearer.

Alcohol's effect on the brain

It's helpful to realize that the human brain continues to grow and develop until age 25. Frequent alcohol use can have a negative impact on regions of the brain that handle learning, memory, speech, as well as visual and spatial thinking.

Alcohol's impact on the brain—not to mention its immediate effects on everyday functioning—may explain why kids who drink usually have serious difficulties in school. Young people who admit to binge drinking are 4 to 6 times more likely than non-drinkers to skip classes. High schoolers who drink regularly are 5 times more likely to drop out. Drinking is related to 40% of all academic problems in college—and 28% of kids who leave before getting their degrees cite problem drinking as one cause.

Risky behavior & violence

Because it changes the way people think and act, alcohol is also closely related to behaviors that can seriously harm your child or cause harm to others. For example, alcohol use in young people can increase their chances of engaging in unprotected sex, exposing them to sexually transmitted diseases and risks for unwanted pregnancies. Incidents of physical and sexual violence often involve young people who are under the influence of alcohol. Unintentional injury-related deaths, especially car accidents, frequently involve drunk drivers. Young people who drink also face higher risks of depression and suicide.

Unhealthy coping skills

Teens who drink can also develop harmful coping strategies. One of the key lessons teens learn during adolescence is how to cope with life's stresses—a poor test score, conflict with friends or family members, nervousness about an upcoming sports or music competition. There are healthy ways to cope with these challenges. But teens who drink alcohol may learn at a young age that substances can help them relax, at least temporarily. This can lead to problems with addiction.

Alcohol use disorder

Underage drinking can have other long-lasting effects. Research shows that people who start drinking before age 15 are more than 5 times likelier to develop alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life, as compared with people who only drank after reaching legal age. Risks for AUD are even higher among teens who have a family member who has struggled with addiction.

Why do kids drink?

There are several factors that might motivate kids and teens to drink.

Peer pressure

Between 11 and 18 years of age, young people are especially open to the influence of people around them. They generally focus on what kids their own age do and say, but family members, the media and the surrounding community matter, too. If everyone they admire and trust seems to be drinking, kids may feel pressured to try it.

Stress

Most young people worry about school, their social standing, what's happening to the world around them and a lot more. Many use alcohol to mute the fearful voices inside them. Sources of stress might include going from middle school to high school, breaking up with a friend or romantic partner, or facing a family separation or divorce. A major move, a serious illness or any other traumatic event might also make kids want to escape their troubles. For some, alcohol may seem like an easy escape.

Environment

If children grow up hearing that drinking—even heavy drinking—is normal, fun, or helpful in coping with life's stress, they will likely experiment with alcohol at an early age. The example that parents and others in their lives set for them will shape their own attitudes about alcohol.

Family history

Kids from families (birth or adoptive) in which others struggled with addiction will face higher risks for problems with alcohol. We know that alcohol use disorder is a complex disease that involves genetic risk. However, adopted children who grow up in homes where alcohol is misused also face higher risks for alcohol use disorder.

Bias & discrimination

Though more research is needed in this area, we also know that race and ethnicity have an impact on underage drinking. For example, 14-year-olds who identify as White, Black or Latinx are equally likely to consume alcohol. By age 18, White and Latinx youth are twice as likely to drink than Black youth.

Racism and discrimination are sources of stress; they can contribute to the risk that young people of color will have problems with alcohol. Here are more resources for families of color who are concerned about alcohol use.

LGBTQ+ teens

Gender diverse and transgender teens are twice as likely as straight kids to face bullying or assault at school. Again, these forms of bias and discrimination may contribute to higher rates of alcohol use among LGBTQ+ people. Here are resources for parents and caregivers supporting LGBTQ+ children.

You are your child's best guide when it comes to alcohol use

It can be overwhelming to think about all the bad things that can happen when young people drink, especially if alcohol becomes part of their strategy for coping with stress or anxiety. But there's good news here. Kids care very much about what their parents think—and are much more open to talking about alcohol use than you might imagine. In fact, research shows that parents are the #1 reason kids decide not to drink. This is just one reason the AAP recommends you talk to your child early and often about underage drinking.

Here are suggestions for starting a meaningful and supportive conversation with your child.

  • Start talking about alcohol with your child when they are around 9 years old. This gives you the opportunity to help shape your child's thoughts and actions around alcohol as they move toward adolescence.

  • Bring the subject up in a relaxed, non-judgmental way. Avoid condemning all people who drink, which might confuse your child. Instead, ask what thoughts they have about alcohol. Do their friends talk about it? Do they have any feelings about the way adults around them use alcohol? Try to listen as much as you talk, especially with teens.

  • Find the right moments. Times when your child is present, engaged, and not rushed are best—for example, quiet mealtimes, or moments when their younger siblings aren't around and distracting them. Put your phone away and make sure the television is turned off. Device-free time allows for better conversations. Avoid bringing the subject up at the last minute—for example, when your teen is leaving the house to go out with their friends.

  • Consider sharing your own stories. Kids appreciate honesty, especially when you're talking about difficult subjects. Without overwhelming your child, you might touch on times when you saw alcohol hurt people. "My father used to get drunk a lot. It wasn't good for his health and it definitely made things hard for him at work. I'm hoping I can help you avoid what happened to him."

  • Normalize non-use. Tell your teen often and repeatedly that it's perfectly normal not to drink. You might acknowledge that, even though many kids do develop drinking problems, national studies show that most teens stay away from alcohol during high school. In fact, the percentage of teens that don't drink has been steadily rising for two decades.

Sharing these facts will help balance out the confusing messages teens may hear that suggest drinking is a rite of passage—or something that all teens do at some point. Parents and caregivers can help teens understand that if they make a healthy choice to avoid alcohol, they won't be the only ones.

  • Set clear expectations and guidelines based on age. Don't be afraid to state that young children should not drink, period. As your child approaches junior high and high school, tell them you know they might feel pressured to try alcohol. Set clear limits and be prepared for pushback. "You don't have to like my rules, but I have to create them because I'm your parent and I care about you."

  • Offer to pick them up, no questions asked. If kids find themselves in a situation where they or others are drinking, they should call you immediately. Make sure they know you'll give them a ride home anytime, day or night. (Depending on your work and family commitments, you'll need to have backup when you can't be available.) Bring them home, give them time to recover, then discuss the issue with them when everyone feels calmer and more rested.

Don't talk to your child about the incident immediately, since this might make them less likely to trust you next time around. However, don't put the conversation off for more than a couple of days. Your child needs to know you take this issue seriously and will set firm limits to protect them.

6 tips to remember

1. Start the conversation about alcohol use early. Keep the dialogue going as your child moves through elementary, middle school, and high school.

2. Be calm, loving, and supportive. Emphasize that you want them to be safe and healthy, now and throughout their life. Don't be afraid to set firm, age-appropriate rules and limits to protect them.

3. Ask your pediatrician for support. Your child's doctor can be an excellent source of information and perspective as you work to set boundaries and create a positive dialogue.

4. Seek out specialized resources if you need them. For example, you may want to review this list of mental health resources for families of color, published by the Mental Health Coalition. If you are parenting a child who identifies as LGBTQ+, The Trevor Project offers in-depth resources.

5. Make it safe for your child to tell you anything. Try not to overreact when your child tries alcohol, even if they get very drunk. You don't have to pretend you're not disappointed, but staying away from shame and blame will signal that your child can trust you when things go wrong and they need you the most.

6. Don't end the conversation when your child moves out or goes to college. Encourage them to come to you anytime they need perspective and support.


More information

Last Updated
12/9/2022
Source
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2022)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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