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Underage Drinking: What Can Parents Do?

Many parents worry that their kids will try alcohol well before they reach the legal drinking age. Even if you've talked to yours about the dangers of abusing alcohol and drugs, you can’t be everywhere. And as they become teens, kids are influenced a lot by what their friends do.

Here's how to keep tabs in a sensible way — including what to watch for and what to do, in case a problem does happen.

What Parents Can Tell Kids About Drinking

It’s true that many kids and teens try alcohol during their high school and college years. And their peers do have a lot of influence as kids get older. But before then — and even after — parents are role models in many areas, including drinking. So make conversations about alcohol use part of your parenting early on.

Reinforce those messages and keep the talks going. Share information that makes sense for your child’s age. As your kids become teens, for example, it makes sense to talk about how misusing alcohol can have effects they care about now. Explain that:

  • It’s illegal to drink before age 21. If the police get involved (by breaking up a party, for instance), your teen could end up with a legal history that means not getting into college or landing a job.
  • Starting to drink at a young age makes it more likely that someone will become addicted later. This is especially true if a teen has other risk factors, such as a family history of substance abuse.
  • Alcohol use can lead to risky behaviors like unprotected sex, which could result in an STD or unplanned pregnancy.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to have problems in school.
  • Alcohol affects a teen’s brain differently than an adult’s. Brain development continues well into a person’s twenties, and drinking can harm it and lead to permanent changes.

What Are the Signs That Kids Might Be Drinking?

Even when parents are open about the risks of underage drinking, kids and teens still might try alcohol. Signs to watch for:

  • the smell of alcohol on their child’s breath
  • their child chewing strong-smelling gum when they come home
  • kids not wanting to talk to parents after they’ve been out
  • alcohol missing from the house

What Are the Signs of a Drinking Problem?

Drinking can get serious quickly if kids or teens do it regularly. Signs of an alcohol problem include:

  • sudden change in mood or attitude
  • missing school or doing poorly in classes
  • loss of interest in school, sports, or other activities
  • discipline problems at school
  • withdrawal from family and friends
  • secrecy
  • not wanting you to know their friends
  • depression

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 these changes. So if your child shows one or two of these signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean alcohol is involved.

Kids who are abusing alcohol usually will show a number of warning signs, like changes in friends, behavior, dress, attitude, mood, and grades. If you see these, talk to your child. If you’re still worried, call your child’s doctor.

You also can find support and help online:

What Else Should I Know?

Kids and teens are better able to resist peer pressure and risky behaviors like underage drinking when they have good self-esteem, feel accepted, are listened to at home, and have good role models.

Help your kids find their strengths, be a good sounding board, and focus on what they do well. If your relationship with alcohol might be a problem, talk to your doctor.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date Reviewed: Sep 10, 2020

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