Parents often lament the fact that their children grow up too fast. However, in addition to losing their baby teeth and learning to drive, kids are also using alcohol at younger and younger ages. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10 percent of 12-year-olds say they have used alcohol at least once, 50 percent all 15-year-olds had at least one drink, and 70 percent of 18 -year-olds have admitted consuming alcoholic drinks. If that is surprising, you should be aware that teen alcohol use kills over 6,000 young people each year—more than all other illegal drugs combined.
Underage Drinking Is Everyone’s Problem
It’s no coincidence that children begin to use alcohol during adolescence. In addition to the hormonal changes happening in the body, adolescence is also a sensitive time in a child’s brain development. In the early teen years, the limbic areas of the person’s brain—those associated with emotions and impulse reaction—begin to mature. The frontal lobes, which are responsible for reasoning and self-regulation, develop afterward. When you consider that your teenager’s friends are also going through these changes, the combination of peer pressure and decreased fear of risk creates a perfect storm for experimenting with alcohol.
Underage alcohol use may be a problem among teenagers, but it starts with the adults in their lives. Since children cannot buy alcohol, they often rely on parents, older siblings, or relatives to purchase it for them, or drink beverages already available at their houses. In fact, alcohol dependence is highest among people between the ages of 18 and 20, making it more likely that teenagers will be addicted to alcohol before they are old enough to legally purchase it.
How Can I Protect My Child Against Underage Drinking?
Luckily, there are ways to curb underage drinking, no matter what your relationship is with a minor:
If you are a parent:
- Build trust. Children say that their parents as the biggest influence on their decisions about alcohol. If you want to discourage alcohol use, make it easy for your kids to approach you and share information, whether that information is good or bad.
- Be aware of big changes. Any sudden transitions or pressures on your child increases the risk of alcohol use. This can include moving up to high school, dating, joining a sports team, getting a driver’s license, or moving to a new town.
- See the signs. Be on the lookout for signs of emotional problems, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. These can often trigger alcohol abuse, especially if you have a family history of alcoholism.
- Know your child’s friends. Your teens may become more independent, but you should still know where they are and who they are with at all times. Be on the alert for any contact with new friends who are involved in deviant activities and make sure you meet all friends’ parents.
- Lead by example. No matter what you do, you are a role model for your child. If you drink, always drink responsibly, without driving or engaging in high-risk behavior. If you think you have a problem with alcohol, seek help. You may be saving more than just your own life.
- Educate and enforce. Too many parents assume that their children know that drinking is off-limits, and that they don’t have to have a conversation about alcohol use. Set clear rules for your children regarding alcohol, and make sure those rules are enforced if they are broken.
If you are over the age of 21:
- Do not give alcohol to underage drinkers. Most alcohol use among young people takes place in someone’s home. Never purchase alcohol for minors, and make sure kids know that any alcohol in your home is off limits.
- Beware of house parties. Alcohol is often consumed at parties in private residences. Make sure someone is chaperoning at any underage parties, and ensure that there is no alcohol at parties in your own home.
- Offer 24/7 help. Relatives and older siblings should let teenagers know that they are available anytime. Give them your cell phone number so they can call you to pick them if they are in danger, and help them seek professional help for their drinking if they ask.
If you are under the age of 21:
- Know the law. If you are caught drinking and you are not 21, you can be prosecuted. Telling an officer or judge that you “didn’t know the rules” is not a valid defense. Make sure you are aware of the penalties for underage drinking—and make sure your friends know them, too.
- Take a hard look at your friends. Most young people drink in groups rather than on their own. If your friends are pressuring you to drink, take a break from seeing them.
- Evaluate your own drinking habits. Alcohol dependence can affect people at a very early age. If alcohol is interfering with your everyday life, find an adult who will help you get the treatment you need.
If you haven’t had a conversation with your children about underage drinking, now is the time. Use this article as a jumping-off point to talk about friends who drink, rules about alcohol, and getting in the car with someone who’s been drinking—or share this article with your friends and other parents on Facebook to get them thinking about the dangers of drinking!