If your teen is drinking, you should be concerned. Alcohol is the substance most commonly abused by young people, and underage drinking is a serious problem among teens and young adults.
Many parents have no idea their child drinks at all — let alone how much they drink and the poor choices they make while under the influence.
Underage alcohol consumption has serious negative implications for a teen’s short-term well-being and long-term health and wellness. Parents can help a teen stay on track by learning the signs and effects of teen alcohol use and knowing how to talk to a teen to help them understand the importance of making smart choices regarding alcohol.
If you can’t get your teen to stop drinking, it’s a clear sign that you need the support of behavioral health professionals.
The Effects of Underage Drinking
It’s impossible to overstate how destructive alcohol use is for teens and young adults. Even when consumed in moderation, alcohol takes a serious toll on a young person’s mental, emotional, and physical development — and teens aren’t known for moderation.
Underage drinkers tend to engage in unhealthy drinking habits, such as binge drinking. While a teen may claim their drinking is moderate or they don’t get drunk, parents should be aware that their child might not be telling the truth.
Alcohol use directly impacts all areas of a teen’s life and health. Unfortunately, that’s not the only harm that underage drinking can cause. Teens who drink set themselves up for long-term issues ranging from physical illnesses to a higher risk of jailing.
Health Effects of Underage Drinking
Some of the most common adverse health effects associated with underage drinking include:
- Mental and emotional health conditions
- Development of a substance use disorder
- Damage to the still-developing prefrontal cortex
- Issues with cognitive functions like memory and concentration
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Weight loss or gain
- Increased risk of chronic health conditions
- Increased risk of suicide
- Risk of death by alcohol poisoning
Even after a young adult is old enough to drink legally, excessive alcohol consumption can have a lifelong impact. The damage tends to be more extreme for teens since their brain is further away from full development.
Other Consequences of Teen Alcohol Use
Drinking alcohol takes a serious toll on a young person’s health, but that’s not all it does. Teens who drink are at serious risk of a huge variety of negative consequences that impact all areas of life. According to the CDC,1 some of the greatest dangers of underage drinking include an increased risk of:
- Legal issues
- Drug use
- Poor academic performance
- Car accidents
- High-risk sexual behavior
- Sexual assault
- Physical assault
- Falling victim to violent crimes
Teens who drink are more likely to be involved in car accidents involving drunk driving and to face legal consequences like DUIs. The impact of drinking on a teen’s academic performance can affect their college and career prospects. Finally, teens who drink alcohol are also more likely to experiment with other drugs, and drug or alcohol use can easily lead to developing a substance use disorder.
Signs Your Child Is Drinking
Sometimes it’s easy to tell that your child has been drinking. The smell of alcohol on their breath or clothes, alcohol containers in their bedroom, or legal issues like a DUI are obvious signs that your child has used alcohol. However, it’s not always easy to tell — and if your teen is drinking, they’re probably trying to hide it.
Some telltale signs parents can watch for that indicate a teen is drinking include:
- Sudden changes in mood, behavior, or attitude
- Changes in physical appearance or hygiene
- Sudden weight gain or loss
- Changes in their schedule or friends
- Academic issues
- Acting defensive when questioned
- Breaking household or school rules
Underage drinking can also bring on emotional changes, like increased apathy, anger, depression, or anxiety. If you’re noticing significant changes in how your teen behaves or expresses their emotions, it’s a sign that something is wrong.
Talking to Your Child About Drinking Alcohol
The best approach to talking to your child about the dangers of underage drinking is to do so proactively and from a young age.
Underage drinking often begins in middle school. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 32% of surveyed eighth graders admitted to trying alcohol in the past year.2
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers parents a guide on setting productive conversation goals.3 Parents can help their teens make smart choices by talking about the negative impacts of alcohol. You can help guard against peer pressure by discussing how your teen should respond if a friend ever offers them alcohol.
Advice for Parents on Dealing with Underage Drinking
If you think your teen is already using alcohol, it’s especially important to ensure they’re informed of the harm alcohol can cause. Make it clear that you don’t approve of underage drinking, but let them know they can count on you to help if they end up in a bad situation.
SAMHSA reports that about 25% of teen driving accidents involve underage drinking.4 Teens who feel comfortable calling their parents for a ride when they or their peers have been drinking are less likely to be injured or killed in a drunk driving accident.
Parents set different consequences for underage drinking. Some might ground a teen, while others might take away electronics for a period. You’ll have to think about what consequences are right for your family.
Treatment Options for Underage Drinking
Some teens can stop drinking, especially when parents step in, communicate, inform them of the risks, and set out consequences. However, some teens have a much harder time than others. If you can’t get your teen to stop drinking, it’s time to seek help from a behavioral health professional.
For some teenagers, outpatient counseling a few times a week can provide sufficient guidance. Other teens may need intensive outpatient care or inpatient care to help them stop drinking for good.
Ember Recovery works with parents to help teens overcome alcohol use. If you’re struggling with a teenager who’s drinking, reach out for help and contact Ember Recovery today.
Sources: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm  https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/make-a-difference-child-alcohol  https://www.samhsa.gov/talk-they-hear-you/parent-resources/five-conversation-goals  https://www.samhsa.gov/talk-they-hear-you/parent-resources/impaired-driving
Andrea Dickerson is a Licensed Therapist and Certified Substance Use Counselor who has worked in behavioral health since 1997. Currently, Andrea is the Director of Behavioral Health, overseeing the Ember residential treatment programs and YSS outpatient counseling clinics throughout Central and North Central Iowa. She became a Motivational Interviewing (MI) trainer in 2006 and provides MI trainings throughout Iowa.
Andrea specializes in working with adolescents and their families and enjoys seeing the family relationships grow through therapy. Andrea is also a CARF International Surveyor, going around North America ensuring behavioral health organizations are meeting required standards.
In her free time, Andrea enjoys cheering on the Iowa Hawkeyes and Chicago Cubs, as well as being an active member of Soroptimist International of the Americas (SIA), a global organization that provides women and girls with access to the education and training they need to achieve economic empowerment. She has been a member of the SI of Des Moines club since 2012 and has been actively involved at the regional level, currently serving as Co-Governor of the Peaks to Plains Region.
Through her involvement in SIA, Andrea has been actively involved in the Dream Programs, coordinating annual Dream It, Be It: Career Support for Girls projects, which give girls the tools they need to achieve their education and career goals, empowering them to break cycles of poverty, violence, and abuse.