Teen Alcohol Use: What You Can Do to Help

Alcohol is, by far, the most socially acceptable and easiest drug to obtain in our country. For that reason, it’s a popular choice among teens. Although it is illegal for teens to purchase alcohol, they can often get it through their parent’s own liquor cabinets, unscrupulous store clerks, or older friends who purchase it for them. The median age at which teens begin to drink is thirteen. A full 87% of high school seniors have used alcohol. Locally, according to the Middle School Survey, Somerset County students report that 43.7% had tried alcohol and 28% reported using alcohol in the last year. (2010 Somerset County Comprehensive Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Plan)

Meanwhile, the culture runs against us. Science Daily reported December 3 that researchers studied ad placements in 118 magazines between 2002 and 2006 and found that products that are most popular with young drinkers — such as flavored drinks, premium beer, low-calorie beer, vodka, and rum — were four times more likely to appear in publications with the highest levels of youth readership than products that are less popular with young drinkers, like gin, brandy, whiskey and scotch.

These facts make it hard for parents and other adults to find the right methods of prevention, but research shows us that it’s important. We all know that alcohol impairs a person’s motor skills, reasoning, and inhibitions. Since teens’ brains are not fully developed and are not able to fully reason and / or project the future consequences of their present actions, alcohol is not a good mix for this age group. But there’s even more evidence that we should work hard to prevent our youth from drinking. California researchers who compared the brains of teen drinkers to non-drinkers found that young alcohol users suffered damage to nerve tissues that could cause attention deficits among boys and faulty visual information processing among girls. The study found that those who binged on alcohol did worse on thinking and memory tests.

Warning Signs

The smell of alcohol on the breath, slurred speech, and problems with coordination are tell-tale signs of alcohol use. Falling grades, skipping school, and behavioral problems are also more common in teen drinkers. You may also notice sudden changes in the friends a child is spending time with. Drinkers tend to be more prone to injuries, such as falls, car accidents, falls, drowning, burns and shootings.


The most effective methods of prevention we have are for parents to talk to their teens, model good behavior, expose youth to examples of positive things that other teens are doing, and teaching youth the consequences of risky behavior. There are some great online guides for what to say, and we’ve included some resources at the end of this blog. In addition, we wanted to give you some information on three recent studies which have de-bunked some myths about alcohol prevention.

Rueters reported on Oct. 16 that the more parents expect their teens to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking and using drugs, the more likely their teens are to follow through with those behaviors. Researchers found that adolescents with mothers who expected them to be more rebellious and take greater risks reported higher levels of risky behavior than other adolescents during follow-up surveys. On the other hand, parents may lower the rate of risky behavior among their adolescent children by expecting that they can resist negative peer pressure and instead engage in positive behavior, according to the study.  The study refutes the common thought that parents are just “being realistic” when they expect illegal drinking.

Another common myth is that, since teens are likely to drink anyway, it’s better to allow them to drink at home when they are supervised than to try to stop them. A recent study of Dutch teens who were allowed to drink alcohol at home also drank more outside the home than their peers and were at increased risk of developing alcohol problems, according to researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen.

Finally, some have recently questioned the effectiveness of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. A recent study conducted by John F. Kelly of Harvard Medical School indicates that people who attend AA meetings drink less — and less frequently — than those who do not attend AA, and also are less depressed. So if you believe that someone you know has a drinking problem, AA still stands as a very effective way of managing alcoholism.

Five Tips for Parents from The Science Inside Alcohol Project:

Find Teachable Moments — We live in a culture of celebrity. If a celebrity your child admires admits to a drinking problem, or an instance of alcohol abuse occurs in your community, talk about it. Ask your middle school student if she knows anyone who drinks alcohol and whether it is at parties or has been brought into her school. Answer questions. Have this conversation often.

Talk to Your Kids When Everything is Fine — Middle school students are volatile, hormonal beings. They are sweet and wonderful one moment, and blow up the next. Pick a time when things are quiet and they’re a captive audience such as in the backseat of your car. Don’t take no for an answer.

Engage Your Kids in the Science of Alcohol — Adolescents are incredibly self-involved. Alcohol can cause memory loss, impair sports performance, incite embarrassing behavior and affect how they feel and look. Make them aware of these facts. If there is a history of alcoholism in your family, explain about genetic predispositions towards alcohol abuse.

Be Vigilant — There’s no alternative to monitoring your kids. Have an early curfew. Know where they are at all times. Even if you are not home on a weeknight, make sure you can reach your kids by phone. Get to know their new friends and their parents. Find out what their rules and level of engagement are.

Learn to Trust Your Child — Now’s the time when all the work you’ve put into creating a value system for your child begins to pay off. Set limits and enforce rules, but remember to give your child room to make his or her decisions, within your comfort zone. Praise them when they do well. It’s worth a thousand words.


If you need more information about teen alcohol use or talking to your teen, here are some resources:

Online Guide for Talking to Kids About Alcohol

Alcoholics Anonymous
National Al-Anon/Alateen
8 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST, Monday to Friday

Alcohol Hotline

The National Alcohol and Substance Abuse Information Center
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week

National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service

800-662-HELP (4357)
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week

Local New Jersey Resources:

New Jersey Drug Hotline

New Jersey Al-Anon/ Alateen Info

Somerset Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency

Somerset Treatment Services


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