Avoiding Teen Drinking Problems

Teen drinking: parents fear it, movies and TV shows celebrate it and teens find themselves caught in a cyclone of confusing messages and impulses. For parents, it's important to understand why teens drink and to realize that this problem is no longer the domain of older teens; a 2002 study by Students Against Dangerous Decisions (SADD) found that drinking begins as early as sixth grade.

Why Teens Drink
Any teen who drinks is making a choice. Sometimes it's simple experimentation. In other cases, teens base their actions on parental behavior, rebel against rules or follow examples set by their friends. The desire to fit in, depression and the need to cope with stress can also be causes.

Drinking is seen by many teens as a right of passage and a way to behave like adults. While TV and movies get much of the blame for glamorizing alcohol, parents also do their part, especially if alcohol is a prominent part of family celebrations or cocktail parties are on the social calendar. Most parents assume that teens will drink, but few expect their teens to develop serious drinking problems.

There are some known risk factors identified by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse that cause a higher incidence of teen drinking problems. These include genetic links to alcoholism, friends who use alcohol or other drugs, impulse control problems, childhood abuse, depression or psychological problems, a lack of communication with parents and inattentive parents.

Preventing Drinking Problems
Parents of teens who have one or more of these identified risk factors must work harder to keep the teen from developing a drinking problem. To assess these risks, parents must be involved in the teen's life with open communication, attention to the teen's behavior and regular contact. This close relationship ideally was built before the teenage years started. If not, parents need to take steps to build this relationship to help the at-risk teen succeed in avoiding drinking problems.

Parents remain the top influence in a teen's life, even if teen behavior makes them feel irrelevant. Here are some important suggestions for helping a teen avoid drinking alcohol:

  • Communicate with your teen openly, honestly and often. Establish trust so that your teen feels comfortable talking to you about conflicts and relies you to give non-judgmental advice. Start well before the teenage years.
  • Talk about alcohol with your teen. Although this may be an uncomfortable subject, talking about it shows that this is important. Give your teen alcoholism information, information about the negative effects of drinking and information about the laws and consequences of drinking. Suggest ways for the teen to respond when confronted with a choice or pressure to drink.
  • Set rules. Enforce them. Be consistent. Teach your teen that alcohol use is not acceptable.
  • Set a good example. Your teen is watching you and the way you interact with alcohol. If you drink, drink only in moderation. Avoid using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Do not drink and drive-model correct behavior because what you do is more powerful than what you say.
  • Be aware of where your teen goes, and who his friends are. Get to know his friends' parents. Knowing other parents gives parents the opportunity to help and support each other. Be sure there is proper adult supervision at parties and gatherings he attends.
  • Watch your teen for signs of alcohol abuse, such as mood changes, dropping grades, lack of interest or attention to her appearance, switching friends and missing money. If your teen develops a problem, or one of his friends does, follow through with alcohol treatment.
  • Have a "no questions asked" rule so that if your teen is in a difficult situation, you will pick him up and take him home. Set up a code word, if needed, so that your teen's friends won't know he's calling home.
  • Be a parent, not a friend. Don't try to be "cool" by providing alcohol at teen parties or allowing your teen to attend parties where there will be drinking, regardless of any adult supervision. Providing alcohol or allowing your teen to attend these parties sends a message that you feel he's old enough to drink. This only leads to more drinking.

There are severe consequences for underage drinking, including

  • Negative effects on brain development, resulting in a lifetime of cognitive challenges
  • High risk behaviors such as drinking and driving or riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking
  • Impaired judgment, leading to bad decisions that could have been avoided otherwise.
  • Risk of sexual activity such as unplanned sex, unprotected sex or giving in to sexual pressure when unimpaired judgment would have resulted in a different choice
  • Crime or violent behavior such as rape, robberies and assault.
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