Youth and Alcohol: Parent Concerns

As much as parents may not like to think about it, the truth is that many kids and teens try alcohol during their high school and college years, long before it is legal for them to drink it. Some research has shown that nearly 80% of high school kids have tried alcohol.

Although experimentation with alcohol may be common among kids, it's not safe or legal. To help prevent alcohol abuse in children, it's a good idea to begin discussing alcohol use and abuse with kids at an early age and to continue openly communicating about it as they grow up.

Tips for Parents: Underage Drinking in California

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The Effects of Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Alcohol interferes with a person's perception of reality and ability to make good decisions. This can be particularly hazardous for kids and teens who have less problem-solving and decision-making experience.

The short-term effects of drinking include:

  • distorted vision, hearing, and coordination
  • altered perceptions and emotions
  • impaired judgment, which can lead to accidents, drowning, and other risky behaviors like unsafe sex and drug use
  • bad breath
  • hangovers

The long-term effects include:

  • cirrhosis and cancer of the liver
  • loss of appetite
  • serious vitamin deficiencies
  • stomach ailments
  • heart and central nervous system damage
  • memory loss
  • an increased risk of impotence
  • high risk for overdosing

Talking to Your Child About Alcohol

There are steps you can take long before your child is presented with alcohol to increase the chances that he or she will just say no.

Childhood is a time for learning and discovery, so it's important to provide an environment at home that not only allows, but encourages your child to ask questions and discover his or her surroundings. Your child may ask questions that are not easy to answer, but creating an open atmosphere for an honest dialogue early on will set the stage for good communication later on when difficult topics come up for discussion.


Although 3- and 4-year-olds won't be ready to learn the facts about alcohol or other drugs, they can begin to develop the decision-making and problem-solving skills they will need later on. You can help them develop those skills in some simple ways.

It's a good idea to allow your toddler to select his or her own clothing. Try not to worry if the choices don't match. Instead, let your child know that you think he or she is capable of making good decisions. Encourage your child to perform age-appropriate tasks and let your child know what a big help he or she is.

It's also important to provide a good example of the behavior that you want your child to demonstrate. This is especially true in the preschool years when kids tend to imitate adults' actions as a way of learning. So, by being active, eating healthy, and drinking responsibly, parents can help teach their children important lessons.

Ages 4 to 7

Kids in this stage still think and learn primarily by experience and they don't have a good understanding of things that will happen in the future. Therefore, it's a good idea to keep discussions about alcohol in the present tense and relate them to people and events that your child knows and understands. For example, watching TV with your child can provide a chance to talk about advertising messages. Ask your child questions about the ads and encourage him or her to ask questions as well.

Most children at this age are interested in how their bodies work, so this is a good time to talk about maintaining good health and avoiding substances that might harm the body. You may want to tell your child alcohol hurts your ability to see, hear, and walk down the sidewalk without tripping; it alters the way you feel; and it doesn't let you judge as well to see whether the water is too deep or if there's a car coming too close. And it gives you bad breath and a headache!

Ages 8 to 11

The later elementary school years are a crucial time in which you can influence your child's decisions about alcohol use. Kids at this age tend to love to learn facts, especially strange ones, and they are eager to learn how things work and what sources of information are available to them. This is a good time to openly discuss facts about alcohol: the long- and short-term effects and consequences of using alcohol, the effects of alcohol on different parts of the body, and why it's especially dangerous for growing bodies.

A child can also be heavily influenced by his or her friends at this age. A child's interests may be determined by what a group of friends thinks. So this is a good time to teach your child to say "no" to peer pressure and stress and the importance of thinking and acting as an individual. Casual discussions about alcohol and friends can take place at the dinner table as part of your normal conversation: "I've been reading about young kids using alcohol. Do you ever hear about kids using alcohol or other drugs in your school?" When you ask these questions, it's important to respond to your child's answers in a way that's not judgmental.

Ages 12 to 17

By the time your child is a teenager, he or she should be very familiar with the facts about alcohol and should have been exposed to your attitudes and beliefs about substance abuse. So you can use this time to reinforce what you've already taught your child and focus on keeping the lines of communication open.

During the teen years, kids are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Their increasing need for independence may make kids want to defy their parents' wishes or instructions as a way of asserting their independence.

But if you make your child feel accepted and respected as an individual, you will increase the chances that your child will try to be open with you. Kids want to be liked and accepted by their peers, and they need a certain degree of privacy and trust. You can help show your teen that you respect him or her by avoiding discipline methods such as excessive preaching and threats. By showing an interest and expressing concern for your child, you are showing your love and concern. Even if your child appears annoyed by your interest, your child may still recognize that it is an important part of your parental role.

Teaching Your Child to Say No

You can teach your child various approaches to deal with offers of alcohol.

  • Teach your child to ask questions. If an unknown substance is offered, your child can ask, "What is it?" or "Where did you get it?"
  • Remind your child that he or she should leave a situation if he or she doesn't feel comfortable with what's going on. Make sure your child has money for transportation or a phone number where you or another responsible adult can be reached.
  • Teach your child never to accept a ride from someone who has been drinking. Some parents find that offering to pick up their children if they are in an uncomfortable situation - no questions asked - helps encourage kids to be honest and call when they need help.
  • Encourage your child to say "no thanks" if he or she is offered an alcoholic drink.

Risk Factors

Research suggests that times of transition such as the onset of puberty or a parents' divorce can lead to alcohol use. Parents should teach their children that although life can sometimes be upsetting or stressful, drinking alcohol to escape difficult times can make a bad situation much worse.

Children who have problems with self-control or low self-esteem are more likely to abuse alcohol. These kids may not believe that they can handle their problems and frustrations without taking something to make them feel better.

Children who lack a sense of connectedness with their families or who feel they are different in some way, such as their appearances or economic levels, may also be at risk. Children who find it hard to believe in themselves desperately need the love and support of parents or other family members.

In fact, not wanting to harm the relationships between themselves and the adults who care about them is the most common reason that young people give for not using alcohol and other drugs.

General Tips

Fortunately, there is a lot that parents can do to protect their children from using and abusing alcohol:

  • Be a good role model. Consider how your use of alcohol or medications may influence your child. You may want to consider offering only nonalcoholic beverages at parties and other social events to show your children you don't need to drink to have fun.
  • Educate yourself about alcohol so you can be a better teacher to your child. Read and collect information that you can share with your child and other parents.
  • Try to be conscious of how you can help build your child's self-esteem. For example, children are more likely to feel good about themselves if you emphasize their strengths and positively reinforce healthy behaviors.
  • Teach your child to manage stress in healthy ways, such as by seeking help from a trusted adult or engaging in a favorite activity.

Recognizing the Signs

Despite your efforts, your child may still use - and abuse - alcohol. How can you tell? Here are some common warning signs:

  • the odor of alcohol
  • sudden change in mood or attitude
  • change in attendance or performance at school
  • loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities
  • discipline problems at school
  • withdrawal from family and friends
  • secrecy
  • association with a new group of friends and reluctance to introduce them to you
  • alcohol disappearing from your home
  • depression and developmental difficulties

It's important not to jump to conclusions based on only one or two signs. Adolescence is a time of change - physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. This can lead to erratic behavior and mood swings as kids try to cope with all of these changes. If your child is using alcohol, there will usually be a cluster of these signs, like changes in friends, behavior, dress, atttitude, mood, and grades. If you see a number of changes, certainly look for all explanations by talking to your kids, but don't overlook substance abuse as a possibility.

What if I Think My Child Is Drinking?

Here are some other tips you may want to try:

  • Keep tabs on where your child goes.
  • Talk to the parents of your child's friends.
  • Always make sure you have a phone number where you can reach your child.
  • Have your child check in regularly when he or she is away from home.
  • If your child is spending an extended length of time away from you, have your child check in periodically with phone call, e-mail, or by stopping at home.

For teens, especially those old enough to drive, it's a good idea to negotiate and sign a behavioral contract. This contract should spell out the way you expect your child to behave and state the consequences if your teen drives under the influence. Follow through and take the keys away, if necessary.

Be a good role model. Make a deal with your teen that says that you and the rest of your family also agree never to drink and drive. You should also encourage responsible behaviors, such as planning for a designated driver or calling an adult for help rather than driving under the influence.

It's important to keep the dialogue open and keep the expectations reasonable. Tying responsible actions to freedoms such as a later curfew or a driver's license acts as a powerful motivator. Teach your child that freedom only comes with responsibility - a lesson that should last a lifetime.

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

Courtesy of Barbara P. Homeier, MD; KidsHealth; Kids and Alcohol; Family Doctor, and American Academy of Family Physicians