Underage drinking is common—and dangerous, both for your child now and in later years. Every day nearly 8,000 American children ages 12 to 17 take their first sips of alcohol. About 10 percent of 12-year-olds, half of 15-year-olds and more than 70 percent of 18-year-olds have had at least one alcoholic drink. Every year, about 5,000 people under age 21 die from underage drinking, mostly from car crashes and homicides.
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Teen Drinking: Binges, Crashes, Fights, Unsafe Sex, Dependence, and Illegal Drugs
When teens drink, they tend to binge, consuming on average five drinks at a time. Kids who start drinking alcohol before age 15 increase their risks of unsafe sexual behavior, physical injury and fights.
Alcohol use kills more children than all illegal drugs combined, and it can open the door to other drug use. More than two-thirds of kids who start drinking before age 15 try illicit drugs. They are 22 times more likely to use marijuana and 50 times more likely to use cocaine than teens who never drink.
Even teens who enter their 20s relatively unscathed may experience long-term consequences of early drinking. Forty percent of adults who started drinking before age 15 now have signs of alcohol dependence—a four times higher risk than for adults who didn’t drink until they were at least 21.
Here are steps you can take to help prevent underage drinking in your teen or tween child:
1. Start talking early. In the year from ages 12 to 13 the number of kids who drink alcohol doubles from 10 to 20 percent. Take time to talk to your kids every day so that when important subjects arise, the conversation flows naturally, and so that you can monitor your child’s activities. Studies show children are less likely to drink when their parents are involved in their lives and when parents and kids feel close to each other.
2. Keep talking. In a new study from Pennsylvania State University, college students whose parents talked to them about alcohol during the summer before college drank less and experienced fewer alcohol-related consequences in college. Keep your tone empathetic and conversational. “Good communication involves a give and take, respect, and understanding rather than a lecture,” says study head Robert Turrisi, Ph.D., professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. “Honesty works well. You can start by saying something like, ‘I get a little nervous when I hear about how much drinking goes on at college. I would feel better if we could talk a little bit.’”
3. Know who their friends are. New research from the University of Iowa of 14- to 17-year-olds finds that teens are three times more likely to start drinking if their best friends drink. Get to know your kids’ friends and their friends’ parents and make sure your teen’s social activities are supervised by adults you trust.
4. Be a good role model. Don’t abuse alcohol yourself. If you drink alcohol, do so moderately. That’s no more than seven drinks a week for women, and no more than three drinks in one day/evening, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For men, the limits are no more than 14 drinks a week—and no more than four on any one day/evening. If you plan to drive, avoid alcohol completely.
5. Set rules about alcohol use. The rules might vary from family to family, but set clear rules and be consistent about enforcing them. Make it clear to your child that the minimum legal drinking age in the United States is 21 and that they should not drink alcohol before that age. At the same time you might want them to know that if they find themselves at an event where people are drinking, they can call you to pick them up, and that their safety is what’s most important to you.
6. Learn as much as you can about alcohol and its effects on teenagers. “Parents need to be knowledgeable about the topic, motivated to have conversations, and skilled in the delivery of the information for meaningful change to occur,” says Dr. Turrisi. The best family approach to lower the risks of underage drinking? “Parents who communicate effectively, who are not permissive with respect to providing or letting their kids drink, who monitor their sons and daughters, and who model lower risk drinking experience.”
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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.