The Best Way Parents Can Protect Their Teens Against Drinking Alcohol

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no more wine
Jerri Rose, MD
Pediatric Emergency Medicine Physician, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital

Assistant Professor,
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

You may think it’s a battle that’s lost before it begins. It’s easy to watch TV or movies and get the idea that every high school kid is drinking, and it’s impossible to keep your teen away from it. While it’s true that about half of U.S. teens have used alcohol by their senior year of high school, there’s another way to think about it — half of U.S. teens have not.

If you buy into the stereotype that all adolescents experiment with alcohol, you’re shortchanging your teen. We used to think the young brain was exceptionally resilient and could recover from damage more easily than an adult’s. We now know that’s not true.  Even small amounts of alcohol can have detrimental effects on the developing brain, impair judgment, promote risky and violent behavior, and slow down reaction time.

Adolescence is a time of major changes within the brain, and alcohol exposure during this period can interrupt key developmental processes. Alcohol use can impact the developing frontal lobes, affecting personality and behavior. Alcohol also stunts the growth of the hippocampus, a key part of the brain for learning and memory. In fact, the earlier a teen begins drinking, the smaller the hippocampus.

The Effects of Underage Drinking Can Last a Lifetime

Teens who consume alcohol can have trouble concentrating or learning, have to work harder than their peers in school, have difficulty making or keeping friends, and have trouble with jobs when they enter the workforce.

Thousands of young people under the age of 21 die each year from the immediate effects of underage drinking, including motor vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning and other injuries. Alcohol-related auto crashes are the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.  Long-term effects also go beyond alcohol-related brain damage — teens who start drinking at an early age have higher incidence of alcoholism as adults and also have higher rates of dementia, stroke and breast diseases as they age.

Because the ramifications of underage drinking are so high, parents need to take a hard line: Drinking alcohol before you are 21 Is dangerous, unacceptable and illegal.

So how can parents prevent their teens from experimenting with alcohol or other substances? Communication is the key. Studies show that the biggest factor influencing teens’ decisions about alcohol is a surprisingly simple one: knowing parents’ expectations about underage drinking.

Additional Tips For Protecting Your Teen

  • Talk to your teens about alcohol, sharing the health-related facts and clearly expressing your thoughts, rules, and concerns.Communication and honesty are essential elements of keeping your teen safe.Studies have shown that teens whose parents talk with them regularly about alcohol and drugs are significantly less likely to abuse substances than those whose parents don’t.
  • Set clear rules against drinking, enforce those rules, and monitor your children’s behavior.
  • Talk with your teen beforehand so that he or she is prepared to handle a situation where other peers are using alcohol.Make it easy for teens to leave a party or other unsafe situation by making it clear they can text or call at any time for a ride home.
  • Don’t encourage your teen to drink or to join you in having a drink.
  • Refrain from making jokes about teenage drinking; make sure your teens understand that underage drinking is not funny or acceptable.
  • Know where your teens are and who they’re with when they’re away from home.
  • Know your children’s friends and their friends’ parents. If your teen is planning on going to a party, call the parents to verify that they will be home and will not allow teens to drink alcohol or use drugs.
  • Set and enforce curfews.
  • Keep stock of what alcohol is in the house and let the teens know you are doing so.

Related links

UH Rainbow pediatric practices are offering extended office hours in May to accommodate and prioritize teen well visits as part of Teen Health Month. Call for an appointment today.

UH Rainbow Babies & Children's experts provide two quick tips for keeping teens healthy. Watch the video.

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