The outcomes for youth who drink alcohol are often grim, but teens often have difficulty connecting potential negative outcomes with the allure of the present moment- which is entirely developmentally appropriate! The glorification of alcohol and drug use in popular media also makes it harder for parents to convey the seriousness of these actions to kids and teens. Given these challenges, what can parents do to help their children understand the gravity of early alcohol use and support the child in waiting until 21?
- Talk to your child early and often about alcohol use. Explain that alcohol affects a person’s ability to make good decisions, think clearly, and assess risk. For people under 21, these effects are greater, and this is why the minimum drinking age of 21 exists.
- Ask your child about his or her anticipated and/or past experiences of peer pressure related to alcohol. Help your child to brainstorm ways to respond to these situations.
- Talk to your child about the dangers of getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking. Give your child explicit permission to call you any time for a safe ride, no questions asked.
- Draw a clear line between legal, responsible alcohol use and underage and/or irresponsible use of alcohol. Having a beer or glass of wine with dinner shows tweens and teens that alcohol is not a taboo substance, but can be enjoyed responsibly by those adults over the age of 21.
- Alcohol should not be provided to minors in your home, regardless of the amount. Even “just a sip” blurs the line between underage and adult use of alcohol.
- Supervise all parties at your home, and require that other parties your child attends be supervised at all times by a responsible adult.
- Get to know your child’s friends. Positive peers can serve as a buffer for alcohol-related peer pressure, and friendships with other peers who do not use alcohol will ensure that your child has a wide range of fun and sober activities to engage in with friends.
- Encourage your child to participate in positive extracurricular activities like sports and hobbies that do not include alcohol.
When Should I Be Concerned?
Many signs of alcohol use overlap with other mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. However, if you see one or more of the following uncharacteristic signs, typically in conjunction with alcohol-specific symptoms, please talk with your child’s provider and pediatrician.
- The onset of problems at school in grades or behavior
- Increasing rebelliousness
- A change in your child’s peer group
- Periodic issues with attention and memory
- Lethargy or low energy
- Mood changes (depression, irritability, anger)
- Signs of intoxication including problems with motor coordination, slurred speech, giddiness
- Finding empty alcohol containers at home or in the child’s car or bag
- Smelling alcohol on the child’s breath
- Missing containers of alcohol
- Lower levels of alcohol or diluted alcohol in containers
Parents are the biggest influence on a child. Talking to kids about safe and responsible alcohol consumption early on can make a huge difference in current and future drinking patterns! Talk to your kids about alcohol use as part of the transition to middle school, and check in regularly as they navigate middle and high school and the transition to college. Your job as a parent is to talk openly about alcohol, help your child to make safe choices, and help them to anticipate and plan for challenges to those safe choices. An open and non-judgmental space to talk with parents about alcohol can go a long way toward delaying youth drinking and alcohol-related problems.
Sources: SAMHSA, www.alcohol.org,