We’ve translated the research and science around youth alcohol use to help you with real-life scenarios and questions you have about teen and young adult drinking.
It's not a rite of passage
Most kids do not drink alcohol. A national survey in 2019 shows that among 12-17-year olds, only 9.4% reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Another recent survey found rates trending downward.
Drinking today is different than parents’ drinking a generation ago.
We know much more today about the range of effects that alcohol can have on youth’s health and safety. New research emerges daily, supporting the fact that any drinking during adolescence before the brain is more fully developed, poses a significant risk.
As a parent, you want to do all you can to protect your child. Many of us didn’t wear helmets for sports in our youth, but we now know that helmets can protect the brain. The same is true of alcohol – we know more about protecting our kids against the effects of alcohol than ever.
Parents can help in fostering a healthy teen social life without alcohol.
Try offering to host activities that don’t include alcohol. Some parents might allow their children to go to parties where alcohol could be available but set limits for their own child’s behavior. Suggest ways for them to avoid and decline alcohol.
Chris Herren, a former NBA basketball player in long-term recovery, asks parents to think about why their children have to drink to have fun on a Friday night. He asks, “Aren’t they enough just as they are without a drink or a drug?” De-normalize teen drinking. Instead of expecting your child to experiment with substances, propose alternative activities.
Depression and anxiety are significant risk factors for youth drinking.
Mental health and substance use often go hand-in-hand: 30-45% of young people with mental health disorders also have a substance use disorder, and at least 65 percent of youth with a substance use disorder have a mental health disorder as well.
Even if your child does not socialize much, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are significant risk factors for drinking and engaging in other forms of substance use. Treating mental health disorders can reduce the risk of substance use, so it’s important to ensure that your child receives appropriate mental health care.
It's just not a good idea
The earlier a child drinks, the higher their likelihood of engaging in alcohol or other substance use and developing a substance use disorder, or addiction, in the future.
Adolescence is the time of peak susceptibility to developing problems with alcohol or other substances since the brain undergoes dramatic developmental changes that continue well into early adulthood. Alcohol disrupts this normal development and can produce long-lasting effects on the brain and interfere with healthy social, cognitive and academic functioning. Even infrequent but intense drinking can lead to addiction, damage to the brain and a range of mental and physical health problems.
Less restrictive rules doesn’t equal fewer problems in other countries.
Studies from the World Health Organization show that European teens consistently report higher levels of drinking, binge drinking and alcohol-related problems compared to youth in the United States. These differences also translate to adulthood; adults in the U.S. consume alcohol at far lower rates compared to adults in Europe.
Supervising use doesn’t protect against future problems.
Research shows that drinking at home with parental approval is associated with higher-risk drinking, heavy alcohol use and alcohol problems later in life. Allowing kids to drink in the home sends mixed messages about the safety of underage alcohol use.
Not only can supplying alcohol to your child and their friends start a pattern of alcohol use that can lead to negative effects, but it’s also illegal in many circumstances. Many states hold the social host or the owner of a home, responsible for underage drinking on their property. You could face serious legal consequences.
Family history isn’t the only risk.
Although there is a genetic component to addiction, many other risk factors contribute to alcohol use and addiction. These include mental health problems, behavior or impulse control problems, exposure to trauma, easy availability of alcohol and opportunities to use it, and starting to drink at an early age.
Religious occasions may be exceptions to the rule, and it’s important to know the risk factors.
You should generally avoid giving your children alcohol. However, if alcohol is a part of a religious ritual or tradition, then providing it to your child in small amounts within that context is acceptable. When making this decision, consider your family history of addiction and any other risk factors for developing an alcohol use disorder.
If you decide to allow your child to drink alcohol for religious rituals, explain that this is the only exception for using alcohol while under age.
Talk frequently & openly
The majority of teens say their parents are the most important influence on their decisions about whether or not to use substances.
Start talking early. Keep in mind that it’s not about having a one-time “drug talk,” but rather addressing it more frequently in natural conversations. Seize opportunities as they occur, such as when seeing an ad on television, passing a bar or being at an event where alcohol is being served. Read more for tips to use with children of any age, from preschoolers to young adults.
Is it a good idea to tell young children that alcoholic beverages are special adult drinks and not for kids?
While this might seem like a good approach, it could actually encourage children to become more interested in drinking precisely because “adults” do it. Many children want to be like their parents and long to have adult experiences. Instead, stick to the message that alcohol is not healthy for children. You want them to develop the strongest brain and body possible.
Maybe it’s better to avoid talking about alcohol, so I don’t put any ideas in their head?
It’s important to communicate openly about alcohol, starting long before your child enters the teen years. Odds are that most of the information they’ll hear about it from other sources, like friends, advertising and pop culture, will be incomplete and misrepresentative. Providing them with accurate information early on can help protect from misinformation.
Talking honestly about alcohol – without exaggeration or scare tactics. Acknowledge its appeal while addressing its dangers is unlikely to encourage a child to start drinking. You also want your child to know your expectations and assure them that their health and safety are the priority in all situations.
Our research shows that a good parent-child relationship and healthy monitoring of children’s activities can protect them from substance use, even for those with a high number of risk factors in their lives.
If I suspect my child sometimes drinks with friends, what should I do?
If you have reason to suspect that your child is drinking, don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution. Prepare to act and have a conversation during which you ask direct questions. Do not dismiss it as normal teen behavior. Instead, talk about it and try to understand why your child is drinking and how those motivations can be addressed through healthier alternatives.
Most importantly, take a health rather than punitive approach. Find more information on what to do if you suspect drinking or other substance use.
Should I give my child a breathalyzer or other test to discourage drinking?
Many experts recommend against alcohol or drug testing unless a medical professional does it and only under specific circumstances. Read more about why.
It’s usually better to be around and give your child a hug when they come home from being out with friends. A close look in the eyes and smelling their breath or clothing are often enough to know if a child has been drinking. The hug also tells them you love and care about them. If you do suspect your child was drinking while out, ask about it but leave the serious conversation for the next morning when everyone is better rested, calmer and in a better position to have a productive, rather than a combative, conversation.
My child is starting college, and I know how common alcohol use is in college. Is there anything I can do from home?
Research shows that your influence can be crucial in preventing your child from drinking in college. The early weeks of one’s first year of college are some of the most critical, so having conversations about alcohol well before they leave for college and staying connected after they leave is essential. Ensure they are aware of the harms of drinking, familiar with their college’s rules and safety procedures, and know they can connect with you in any situation.
Get help when needed
What should my child do if they find that a friend is in trouble and suspect alcohol poisoning?
Tell your child to place the friend on their side to ensure they don’t choke if they vomit, and immediately call 911 for help.
Make sure your child understands that the priority in a dangerous situation is to protect their own and others’ health and safety, regardless of legal or other consequences. Some Good Samaritan Laws apply to underage drinking, so that a youth who is drinking will not get in trouble for calling 911. Not every state’s Good Samaritan Law applies to this situation, however.
What about a child who binge drinks and gets drunk pretty regularly, but is doing fine in work, school and friendships?
It is possible that a child who drinks can function seemingly well in their everyday life, but still have underlying issues that are causing them to drink in an unhealthy way. In addition to better understanding the causes of their drinking, it’s important to take the short- and longer-term consequences of alcohol use on their health and well-being seriously. When you do address your child’s drinking, try to resist the urge to lecture, yell or punish. Get professional help if their drinking persists.
Learn more here about how to start the conversation and get support for you and your child.
What can I do if I think my child has a drinking problem?
Depending on your child’s level of alcohol use, there are different interventions available. Several digital programs are available to help teens and young adults cut back or stop drinking, and there are others to help parents and caregivers guide young people to engage in healthier behavior and find support for themselves and their child.
If your child is unable to stop drinking or significantly cut down, there are many resources available to help you navigate the treatment system. There are different treatment options available, with residential rehab being just one that is typically used when outpatient treatment has not succeeded or when the child’s alcohol use is severe enough to pose an immediate threat to safety.