Teens and Underage Drinking FAQ for Parents

Raising a teenager can come with its unique set of challenges, including how to navigate their curiosities and behaviors around alcohol use. Summer can often heighten those temptations as it draws teens to large group gatherings like music festivals and street fests. Lurie Children's Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine Physician and Substance Use & Prevention Program Medical Director Dr. Maria Rahmandar discusses the potential consequences of underage drinking and how parents and caregivers can go about creating open lines of communication with their children while prioritizing safety.

How common is underage drinking?

In the past two decades, alcohol use among high school students has overall decreased. From 2001 to 2022, past year use has decreased from 73% to 52% of 12th graders, from 64% to 31.3% of 10th graders, and from 42% to 15.2% of 8th graders. *

It’s reassuring to see that fewer teens are using alcohol over time, but it’s important to know that any use is still concerning at this age. The good news is that while half of 12th graders in the U.S. report using alcohol in the past year, the other half of 12th graders have not. It can also be helpful for teens to know that most of their peers are making the healthy decision not to drink alcohol.

*Source: https://monitoringthefuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/mtf2022.pdf

What are some reasons a teenager might start drinking before they are of age?

The teenage years are about developing independence and trying new things, which may include drug or alcohol use for some. Others start or end up continuing to drink alcohol to cope with mental health concerns or traumas they might have experienced at home, in their social lives or elsewhere.

What are the short-term risks of drinking alcohol as a teen?

Alcohol use can contribute to critical injuries and accidents, including motor vehicle accidents and drownings which are two of the leading causes of death for 10–19-year-olds. *

Other short-term risks include non-deadly injuries, poor decision-making, memory and coordination impairment while intoxicated and alcohol poisoning.

*Source: https://wisqars.cdc.gov/cgi-bin/broker.exe

What are the potential long-term consequences?

Alcohol use disorder won’t develop the first time a person drinks but can develop over time with repeated use, even in teenagers. It can also complicate mental health conditions and worsen underlying physical health conditions (like diabetes). Additionally, long-term alcohol use can lead to even more serious physical consequences, such as liver damage.

What’s the best way to talk to my child about drinking?

Start talking with them even before adolescence and keep talking over time. This will not be a one-and-done lecture, but you can talk and ask questions based on things you and your child/teen are seeing in everyday life, such as commercials, upcoming parties, what they are learning in school, etc.

Express your love and support for your child/teen, while setting consistent rules and expectations around avoiding alcohol use.

What should I do if my teen comes home drunk?

This is a discussion best left for the next day after everyone has had rest. As parents and caregivers, try to:

  • Understand why your teen was drinking, how they feel about it, and how they got home
  • Avoid shaming
  • Reiterate the rules around drinking
  • Set a plan for safe rides home
  • Seek help if you have concerns about repeated underage drinking, developing alcohol use disorder or other concerns about your teen’s mental or physical health

How can my child safely go to an event where alcohol is present?

Make sure co-parents and even friends’ parents are on the same page with avoiding alcohol use. Though you hope your teens and their friends decide not to drink, discuss the importance of staying hydrated (especially at hot outdoor events) and not mixing alcohol with other drugs. Discuss safe ways to get home and let your teen know they can ask for a ride any time.

It’s also important to normalize not drinking alcohol in the first place. Most teens are choosing not to drink, so talk with them about other ways to have fun that don’t include drinking and prepare them with ways to say “no” with confidence if they are offered alcohol.

Some teens like to use a simple “no, thanks.” Others like to share a reason, such as “I don’t drink because my family has had problems with alcohol,” “because I have to drive/work/wake up early,” “because it’s gross,” or whatever reason the teen wants to share with others.  

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