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Talking With Teens About Alcohol: How You Make a Difference

  • Be realistic about the risks and costs. Despite glorified or humorous portrayals in the media, underage alcohol use contributes to a wide range of risks for teens, including:
    • Alcohol-related injury or death (particularly associated with drinking and driving or riding with an intoxicated driver).
    • Earlier sexual intercourse and unprotected sex.
    • Having multiple sexual partners and having casual, unprotected sex when alcohol is being consumed.
    • Decreased school attendance and achievement.
    • Potentially altered brain functioning.
  • Understand what predicts a young person’s alcohol use. A variety of studies have found a wide range of factors that affect whether a young person drinks—and whether this drinking will become a significant problem. Here is some of what is currently understood:

Teens Are More Likely to Drink When...

  • Others close to them drink, including parents, brothers and sisters, and friends.
  • Family history includes alcoholism, antisocial behavior, or depression.
  • Parents encourage supervised drinking by teens, believing incorrectly that it will teach responsible alcohol use.
  • They focus on perceived benefits of alcohol use.
  • The child experienced maltreatment or neglect.
  • The child’s mother drank during pregnancy.
  • They smoke or use other drugs.
  • They have certain traits, such as impulsivity, risk taking, or a high tolerance for alcohol.

Teens Are Less Likely to Drink When...

  • Their parents disapprove of underage drinking and actively discourage alcohol use by young people, particularly early use.
  • They have a close relationship with their mothers and fathers.
  • Their family is relatively free of conflict.
  • They are raised by parents who offer a balance of discipline, boundaries, support, and appreciation.
  • They do well in school and are involved in other positive, structured activities.
  • They have good impulse control and can manage their own emotions and behaviors.
  • They focus on the negative consequences of using alcohol.
  • Do not allow teens to drink in the home. Though some people advocate letting adolescents drink at home so they can learn to consume alcohol responsibly, available research indicates that doing so increases the risks of underage drinking.1 Those whose parents provide alcohol have the greatest increases in drinking behavior, and they are more likely to drink more heavily away from home.
  • If you choose to drink, model responsible alcohol attitudes and consumption. How you respond to situations that include alcohol—especially when your teens are around—sends a strong message.
    • Limit how much, how often, and where you drink. Do not drink in high-risk situations such as when driving, operating a boat, or operating machinery.
    • Avoid making alcohol seem essential for relaxing or having a good time. Don’t laugh at or glorify the people who have had too much to drink, whether it is in your community, in the news, or on television.
    • If your teen asks why you can drink and he or she can’t, say something like, “Alcohol isn’t good for growing bodies and minds,” or “Consuming alcohol well requires first developing adult skills and showing responsibility in many different areas of life.”
    • Always offer nonalcoholic drink options when you entertain in your home or workplace so that teens know that some adults do not drink. (About one-third of U.S. adults do not drink alcohol.)
    • If you or your partner struggles with alcohol abuse, seek professional help from a physician or addiction counselor. You can find treatment options through the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator, a service of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Start early. Setting and enforcing clear expectations about not using alcohol as a teenager are key to delaying first use. That’s important, since the younger adolescents are when they first use alcohol the more likely they are to deal with its negative consequences.
  • Keep communication open. Be interested in your teen’s life, and be open to information he or she may share. Not only will this make it easier to talk about difficult issues regarding alcohol and other topics, but it also will give you information about where your teen may be facing pressure or temptation to use alcohol.
  • Set clear, specific rules about alcohol use. Teens who have well-defined, alcohol-specific rules are less likely to start drinking. Those who start later are likely to drink less.
  • Address drinking and driving. Be clear that teens should never drive with any alcohol in their system or ride with someone who has been drinking. Have a clear plan for what to do if your teen is in a situation that could involve alcohol and driving. This could include an agreement to call you for help at any time, with no questions asked at the time (though consequences would be in place after the immediate danger has passed).
  • Adjust as your teen grows up and faces new situations. As teens get older, they will face new challenges and situations. In addition, they will pull away from some of the protective structures of adolescence and become more independent. Major personal or family changes (such as parental divorce or a move to a new town) require rebuilding the positive supports that keep your teen on track.
  • Band together with other parents. Other parents are likely to share some of your same concerns. Create a pact to work together to keep parties and get-togethers alcohol free (for example, by ensuring that an adult is around when parties happen).
  • Support broader school and community efforts. Underage drinking is not a teen problem or a family problem. It is a community problem that requires many people and systems working together, including efforts in the schools to support and reinforce appropriate rules and consequences. As you’re able, link to and support these broader efforts, recognizing the value that broader efforts can provide for parents.
  • Intervene if you suspect that teens are using alcohol. Talk to teens right away and work with them (and other parents) to prevent further underage alcohol use.
    • Ask teens directly, describing the reasons for your concern. Ask for their side of the story. Avoid being judgmental, but share your perspective and expectations.
    • If your teen has used alcohol, set appropriate consequences. Use it as an opportunity to help him or her learn from mistakes. What should happen the next time, or what will you do to ensure there are not other similar opportunities to get alcohol?
    • If you suspect your teen has a serious drinking problem, get professional help. Many physicians and addiction counselors can offer information on treatment options. You can also find treatment options in your area through the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator.

Check out Talk with Your Teen.

Footnotes


1 Abar, C.,  Abar, B., & Turrisi, R. (2009). The impact of parental modeling and permissibility on alcohol use and experienced negative drinking consequences in college. Addictive Behaviors, 34, 542–547.
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on October 17, 2016