How (And Why) to Talk to Your Teen About Alcohol Use

By Marie Schreiber, DO

Boy drinking beer

Photo credit: David Jones/PA Wire

My oldest son will graduate high school in June. His final year has been filled with all of the memorable milestones– varsity football games, homecoming, college visits and now the end-of-the-year celebrations: graduation parties and the prom. A recent five-page mailing from the local board of education outlined the consequences of using drugs or alcohol at these events, from police notification to suspension from school. Is getting a buzz worth the burden?

As an emergency physician, I’ve seen the consequences of underage alcohol use, which continues to be a major public health issue. April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and if you have a teenager, this is an ideal time to have “the talk” about underage drinking. Teens don’t just drink – they drink to excess; they haven’t yet learned their limitations, and peer pressure is frequent and powerful. Talking to them about the dangers of drinking – and learning the signs of underage drinking yourself – can help prevent another tragedy. And if you don’t think underage drinking pertains to your child, read on.

The Facts About Teenage Alcohol Use

You can’t ignore the facts. According to the U.S. Surgeon General:

  • Young people drink alcohol more frequently than they use of all other illicit drugs combined.
  • Nearly 10.8 million young adults aged 12 to 20 are underage drinkers.
  • About 5,000 young adults under age 21 die every year as a result of underage drinking, either from motor vehicle accidents, homicides or suicides.
  • 10 percent of 12 year olds say they have used alcohol at least once. By age 13, that number doubled, and by age 15, about 50 percent have had at least one drink.

According to the Federal Trade Commission:

  • More than 7 percent of 8th graders, 16 percent of sophomores and 23 percent of seniors report recent binge drinking, defined as more than five drinks on the same occasion.
  • A government report noted a relationship between binge drinking and grades: Almost two-thirds of “mostly A” students did not binge drink, whereas nearly half of “mostly Ds and Fs” students reported binge drinking.

The studies and statistics go on and on, but the bottom line is that you and your teenager are confronting a difficult and important issue, and you’re best off doing it together.

Know the Signs

Alcohol affects every organ in the body. There are warning signs that can signal that your child may be using alcohol. Physical signs may include:

  • Red or bloodshot eyes
  • Persistent cough
  • Increased fatigue or problems sleeping
  • Changes in weight (increase or decrease)
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Frequent headaches
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to sound (especially in the morning due to hangover)
  • Other drug use, including cigarette smoking
  • Lack of concentration
  • Blackouts, or the inability to account for specific periods of time

Emotional warning signs of alcohol abuse may include:

  • Withdrawal from family
  • Spending more time with friends than family members
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed hobbies
  • Depression
  • Mood swings, including irritability
  • Being quick to argue or overly defensive
  • Change in choice of friends or peer groups
  • Not introducing new friends to you

Of course, most parents of teenagers are acutely aware that teens argue and want to spend more time with friends! The point is that you know your child, and you will know when there is a drastic change in behavior if you know what to look for. By communicating with your child, having an open and honest dialogue about alcohol use and your feelings about underage drinking and its dangers, you can help guide him or her in making good choices.

Talking to your teen can help prepare him or her for difficult circumstances involving underage alcohol use. Peer pressure is ever-present. Remind your teen that there are always ways to safely get out of a potentially problematic situation. Make it clear that under no circumstances should she get into a car with someone who has been drinking, and let her know that she can call you at any time if she’s in trouble. Be sure to focus on providing ways to keep your child safe, not on ways to punish her for getting into questionable situations. Those situations will arise. Prior discussion will keep both escape routes and communication open; a promise of punishment will lead only to secrecy—and possibly worse.

Tips for Teens

Help your teen say no. Suggest that he or she:

  • Make a pledge with her friends that they will help each other avoid alcohol and other drugs, like leaving parties together where kids are drinking.
  • Make the decision not to drink and commit to it. Suggest that they make their stance clear to their friends.
  • Explain that he’s in training for his favorite sport and doesn’t want to be tired or hungover for practice—or for the big game.

Give your teen your full support. Help him understand that although he may face some uncomfortable situations while growing up, he can choose not to drink and still have fun.

Marie Schreiber, DO, is a graduate of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, and completed her emergency medicine residency at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, N.J. Board-certified in emergency medicine, Dr. Schreiber is on staff at Monmouth Medical Center, Long Branch, N.J., and eMedical Urgent Care in Middletown, N.J.

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