6 Ways to Prevent Teen Drinking

Preventing Teen Drinking

Although alcohol use during the teen years is on a decline, it’s still a hot button issue. Alcohol is the most widely used substance during adolescence. By age 15 about 33 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink, and that number jumps up to 60 percent by age 18

Alcohol use must be part of ongoing conversations in the home. Part of a parent’s job is to keep adolescents safe from the harmful effects of alcohol on their developing brains and bodies. You can make a difference in teen drinking. Not sure where to start? We’ve got you covered. 

Know the Facts. Alcohol Puts Teen Safety at Risk.

It rarely works to tell your children what not to do. (Says the mom of a toddler icing a bump on his head despite my “Don’t climb on the couch!” warning). Your children need to understand that your concerns are grounded in the real dangers substances pose. You’re having these conversations because you care. Here’s what they need to know.

  • Alcohol impairs judgment and affects the ability to make smart decisions or thoughtfully consider consequences. Weakened judgment makes teens more vulnerable to influence or manipulation. This can put them in danger of being physically hurt or sexually exploited.
  • Alcohol acts like a temporary shield — making young people believe they can handle risks they simply cannot. When under the influence, youth (any of us, really) may say things they shouldn’t or start arguments that lead to conflict.
  • Alcohol also slows down reaction time and reduces coordination. As a result, it is responsible for more than 4000 teen deaths per year, most commonly related to motor vehicle accidents.
  • And it’s not just problems presenting in-the-moment that we need to worry about. Drinking heavily during the teen years has lasting effects on their brains and bodies. Teen brains continue to grow into their mid 20s — alcohol can actually alter how the brain develops and works. It changes the function of the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for memory and the area that helps control emotions.
Early experimentation with alcohol can boil over into more serious problems.

Parents Can Prevent Teen Alcohol Use

Early experimentation with alcohol can boil over into more serious problems. The earlier young people start drinking, the more likely they are to exhibit problematic drinking behaviors in the future. In other words, their actions during adolescence have far-reaching implications for their relationship with substances later in life.

There’s plenty parents can do to keep the pressure off teens to consume alcohol. Having ongoing discussions about the dangers and consequences of underage drinking is the starting point. These conversations can (and should) encourage teens to think critically about how the world around them — and those in it — may influence their relationship with alcohol and other substances. Additionally, parents must take intentional actions to prevent access to alcohol and early experimentation with drinking. Here a just a few concrete steps to dial down the heat on teen drinking.

  1. Develop Stress Management Skills. Young people may initially try substances to have “fun.” But some end up using them more regularly to escape reality or mask feelings. This is especially concerning, as those who turn to substances to reduce stress are at greater risk of addiction. This is because they’re more likely to become reliant on the substance to address pain. Parents can help teens manage stress in healthy ways. Guide your child to develop their stress management skills by creating a plan. The more coping strategies they have available to them, the less likely they’ll need a quick fix. 
  2. Monitor Friendships. Teens tend to overestimate how many of their peers are using substances. If they think their friends are drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana, they are more likely to drink. They need to know that most teens under 18 don’t drink and most young adults don’t binge drink. Fewer than ever in fact. Remain involved in their lives so you know who they spend time with. Ensure they have plenty of opportunities to hang out socially with friends. Promote engagement in a variety of activities where they’ll be exposed to young people from diverse backgrounds. For more ways to encourage positive relationships, read Use Peer Pressure to Your Advantage.
  3. Create an Agreement. Mothers Against Drunk Drinking (MADD) developed a parent/teen agreement to support the discussion about avoiding substances. You can access it here. It’s all about devising clear rules and consistent consequences. Invite your teen to be involved in creating one so they know what to expect. Make it clear you have a zero tolerance policy for drinking or drug use and for driving under the influence or getting into the car with an impaired driver. Sit down and discuss the plan frequently and be prepared to enforce established consequences. Make it clear your rules are about their safety, not about controlling them or trying to ruin their fun. 
  4. Supervise Parties. Make a pact with other parents to set the expectation that alcohol will not be tolerated at parties. Make sure there will be an adult present at all gatherings. It’s also wise to secure the alcohol in your home. More than 95 percent of tweens and young teens say they get alcohol for free — often this comes from family members or is found at home. Know what’s in your liquor cabinet and check the contents regularly. 
  5. Teach Peer Pressure Skills. Teens may need concrete skills to help them resist pressures to drink alcohol. Here are two easy ones that allow them to save face in front of friends and get out of uncomfortable situations. First, set up a code word. When they call or text you with your chosen word, you demand they come home or agree to pick them up — no questions asked. Second, institute a check-in rule. Every night they must physically check-in with you so you can ensure they haven’t been drinking. It’s also a good chance to connect about their night. They will get used to telling friends, “I can’t drink, my mom/dad smells my breath every night and I’d be grounded for a month. Not worth it.” 
  6. Support Healthy Risk Taking. A promising way to prevent teens from taking negative risks is to replace them with positive ones. Part of growing up is pushing boundaries and stretching limits. But this doesn’t need to keep you up at night. Find ways to satisfy their need for exploration that are healthy and that don’t put their safety at risk. Ensure they have opportunities to try new things, get outside their comfort zones, and challenge themselves in exciting ways. Check out Supporting Teens to Take Healthy Risks for ideas.

Parents are Role Models

Your kids are watching you closely. Parental drinking habits affect the age teens try drinking. Be sure to drink responsibly yourself. Teens learn through the example you set. You are key to prevention. 

If you are concerned about your teen’s drinking habits, take action. Learn to spot the warning signs that your teen is using drugs or alcohol. Help is just a call away. SAMHSA’s National Helpline is available 24-hours-a-day and is free and confidential: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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