Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to alcohol use. The physical changes of puberty might make your adolescent feel self-conscious and more likely to take risks to fit in or please others. Also, your adolescent might have trouble understanding that his actions can have adverse consequences. Common risk factors for underage drinking include:
- History of behavior problems or mental health conditions
- Family problems (e.g., marital conflict, parental alcohol abuse, etc.)
- Increased stress at home or school
- Transitions (e.g., the move from middle school to high school, getting a driver's license, etc.)
Whatever causes an adolescent to drink, the consequences may be the same. For example, underage drinking can lead to:
- Stunted development: Research shows that alcohol use may permanently distort an adolescent's emotional and intellectual development.
- Sexual activity: Adolescents that drink tend to become sexually active earlier and have sex more often than do adolescents who don't drink. Adolescents that drink are also more likely to have unprotected sex than are adolescents who don't drink.
- School problems: Adolescents that drink tend to have more academic and conduct problems than do adolescents who don't drink. Also, drinking can lead to temporary or permanent suspension from sports and other extracurricular activities.
- Being a victim of violent crime: Alcohol-related crimes can include rape, assault and robbery.
- Alcohol-related fatalities: Alcohol-related accidents are a leading cause of adolescent deaths. Drowning, suicides and murders also have been linked with alcohol use.
- Alcoholism: Individuals who begin drinking as adolescents are more likely to develop alcohol dependence than are those who wait until they're grown-ups to drink.
To increase your odds of having a meaningful discussion about alcohol abuse, choose a time when you and your adolescent are relaxed. Don't worry about covering everything at once. If you talk often, you might have a greater impact on your adolescent than if you have only a single discussion. When you talk about underage drinking, you might include the following:
1. Ask your adolescent's views. Find out what your adolescent knows and thinks about alcohol.
2. Be prepared to discuss your own drinking. Your adolescent might ask if you drank alcohol when you were underage. If you chose not to drink, explain why. If you chose to drink, you might share an example of a negative consequence of your drinking. If you drink today, be prepared to talk about why social drinking is OK for you and not for your adolescent.
3. Debunk myths. Adolescents often think that drinking makes them popular or happy. Explain that alcohol can make you feel "high" but it's a depressant that also can cause sadness and anger.
4. Develop a strong relationship with your adolescent. Your support will help your adolescent build the self-esteem she needs to stand up to peer pressure and live up to your expectations.
5. Discuss reasons not to drink alcohol. Avoid scare tactics. Instead, explain the risks and appeal to your adolescent's self-respect. If you have a family history of alcoholism or drinking problems, be honest with your adolescent. Strongly discourage your adolescent from trying alcohol — even as an grown-up — since there's a considerable chance that your adolescent could develop an alcohol problem, too.
6. Encourage healthy friendships. If your adolescent's friends drink alcohol, he is more likely to drink, too. Get to know your adolescent's friends and their moms and dads.
7. Establish rules and consequences. Rules might include no underage drinking, 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 consistently.
8. Watch for signs of alcohol drinking and issue immediate consequences. If you suspect that your adolescent has been drinking (e.g., you've noticed mood changes or behavior problems, your adolescent has red or glazed eyes or unusual health complaints), then talk to her. Enforce the consequences you've established so that your adolescent understands that using alcohol will always result in a loss of privileges.
9. Know your adolescent's activities. Pay attention to your adolescent's plans and whereabouts. Encourage participation in supervised after-school and weekend activities.
10. Plan ways to handle peer pressure. Brainstorm with your adolescent about how to respond to offers of alcohol. It might be as simple as saying, "No thanks" or "Do you have any Mountain Dew?"
11. Set an example. If you drink, do so only in moderation and explain to your adolescent why it's OK for grown-ups to drink responsibly. Describe the rules you follow (e.g., not drinking and driving). Don't serve alcohol to anyone who's underage.
12. Share facts. Explain that alcohol is a powerful drug that slows the body and mind, and that anyone can develop an alcohol problem — even an adolescent without risk factors for alcohol abuse.
If you think your adolescent might have a drinking problem, contact the doctor or a counselor who specializes in alcohol problems. Adolescents that have alcohol problems aren't likely to realize it or seek help on their own.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents