Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) publishes that close to 90 percent of all American adults report drinking alcohol at least once in their lifetimes, according to the 2015 national survey.
Alcohol is a legal mind-altering substance that adults can enjoy responsibly in moderation. Underage drinking is a major public health issue, however. Underage drinking is consuming alcohol before the legal drinking age of 21. NIAAA reports that 60 percent of teenagers have had at least one alcoholic drink by the time they turn 18.
Alcohol impairs brain functions and disrupts natural brain chemistry, impacting parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, impulse control, thinking, decision-making, and memory formation. These regions of the brain are not fully developed in adolescence, and introducing alcohol prior to full development of the brain can have lasting consequences.
NCADD warns that drinking alcohol before age 15 increases the risk fivefold that a person will struggle with alcohol abuse and dependence after they turn 21. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published that underage drinking contributed to over 4,000 youth deaths and close to 200,000 emergency room visits.
Parents play a big role in teaching children how to be responsible and healthy adults. As a result, parents need to educate their children on responsible consumption of alcohol.
Responsible Alcohol Consumption
NIAAA publishes that for a man, drinking less than four standard drinks a day and 14 drinks a week (three drinks a day and seven drinks a week for a woman) constitutes a pattern of low-risk drinking. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 considers moderate alcohol consumption no more than one drink per day for a man and no more than two drinks per day for a woman. A standard drink, as published by NIAAA, is:
- One beer: 12 ounces containing 5% alcohol
- One glass of wine: 5 ounces containing 12% alcohol
- One serving of malt liquor: 8-9 ounces containing 7% alcohol
- One shot of distilled spirits: 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor containing 40% alcohol
These Dietary Guidelines are only for people who already consume alcohol, and they recommend that a person shouldn’t start drinking if they don’t already. Pregnant women and those under the legal drinking age of 21 are not recommended to drink at all.
Other countries do not take such a hard line on drinking under the age of 21, and many have drinking ages as low as 15 or 16 years old, or no minimum legal drinking age in place at all. In many European countries, alcohol is part of the culture, easily accessible, and often introduced at a young age. Since these countries are more liberal with the legal drinking age, it may seem that alcohol will be used less often as a means of "rebelling" or acting out since it is not explicitly forbidden. The argument is that parents and society in these countries teach their kids how to drink responsibly at a young age, so they will have less negative consequences from drinking and engage in high-risk drinking less often. The research does not support this theory, however.
The Pacific Institute on Research and Evaluation publishes a comparison between European countries and the United States regarding youth rates of alcohol consumption and alcohol-related issues, which found the opposite to be true based on large-scale surveys. Youth in countries such as Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland that have minimum drinking ages between 14 and 16, as well as most other European countries with lower minimum drinking ages than the United States, actually drank more often in the prior 30 days and had higher rates of intoxication than American youths. More European youths also admitted to being intoxicated before age 13 than American youths as well. The Sundial reports that European youths have more issues related to underage intoxication, school problems, injuries, and alcohol-involved sexual assaults than their American peers as well.
In 1999, New Zealand dropped their minimum legal drinking age from 21 to 18, and saw an immediate rise in the number of alcohol-involved traffic crashes and incidents, US News reports. The American minimum legal drinking age of 21 may save an estimated 900 lives per year from dying in an underage alcohol-involved car crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) publishes that when the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 was nationally enforced in 1984, American youth alcohol consumption decreased, and alcohol-involved traffic fatalities declined.
Teaching children and adolescents the potential dangers of alcohol consumption, and teaching young adults how to consume alcohol responsibly are key to reducing possible negative outcomes related to alcohol use.
Tips on Talking to Children about the Hazards of Alcohol
One of the best things parents can do to educate their children on any matter is to be a good role model. Kids are always watching, even when parents aren't aware. By modeling responsible alcohol consumption and talking to kids about alcohol safety, parents can potentially impact their children's behaviors when it comes to drinking. Show children that moderate alcohol consumption, such as a beer with dinner or a glass of wine in the evening at home, can be responsible and safe. Alcohol does not need to be a taboo substance that is strictly prohibited forever, but rather something that can be enjoyed responsibly by adults.
Be involved in your child's life, and build a strong and trusting relationship. Teens who feel supported and loved at home are less likely to start drinking, and when they do, they are also less at risk for developing problems related to alcohol abuse and dependence, NIAAA publishes. Set clear boundaries, but also to listen to your teen, and keep the lines of communication open and honest.
Provide a safe space for them to talk to you. Recognize that children are going to make mistakes, and help them to make better choices and to overcome any pitfalls. A stable and secure home environment can go a long way toward delaying youth drinking and alcohol-related problems.
- Explain that alcohol is illegal for people under the age of 21 to drink, and drinking can result in criminal or legal problems as well as difficulties at school.
- Detail how alcohol is a mind-altering substance that interacts in the brain, making it hard to make good decisions and think clearly. Alcohol can make a person more vulnerable to injury, getting into an accident, being a victim of sexual assault, acting in ways they wouldn't normally, and taking bigger risks with less regard for consequences than they would sober.
- Dispel the myth about how glamorous alcohol can be, and explain how media portrayals are often false and misleading.
- Explain how every "drink" is not the same, and that different percentages of alcohol may be contained in the same amount of liquid.
- Let teens know that everyone is not doing it, even though this may be their common misconception. Give children an out by using the parent as the "bad guy" and empower them to say "no thanks" when offered alcohol.
- Highlight the dangers of getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking, and give them the green light to call you anytime for a ride home with no questions asked.
- Help teenagers with tools for minimizing peer pressure and encourage healthy friendships.
- If there is a family history of alcoholism, ensure that the child is aware of this. Explain the high heritability of the disease and how this makes a person potentially more vulnerable to alcoholism and alcohol-related issues.
- Explain why rules about kids not drinking exist. Set clear and concise boundaries and guidelines for your home and family.
In short, talking to kids about the potential perils of underage drinking can be important to help them abstain from drinking until they turn 21. It can also be beneficial to show children that alcohol can be enjoyed responsibly by adults of legal drinking age. Model responsible and safe drinking behaviors by not drinking to excess, or drinking and driving. Show kids that alcohol is not a coping mechanism. Instead, impart healthy alternatives for stress management, such as exercising, talking to others, artistic expression, or listening to music.
Parents are the biggest influence on a child. Talking to kids about safe and responsible alcohol consumption early on can make a huge difference in future drinking patterns.