Approaching an Adolescent Who Is Engaging in Underage Drinking

Teenager Looking into the Distance

Approaching an adolescent who is engaging in underage drinking can be a daunting task. Often times parents and caregivers are often unsure of how to know if their child is drinking besides looking for visual signs, or a feeling that their child is engaging in drinking behaviors.

Certain indicators will tell you if your child is engaging in underage drinking [1].  These symptoms can include odor of alcohol on your child’s breath, red or glazed eyes, or noticeable alcohol missing from the home.  You might notice mood changes or your child might complain of fatigue and other physical symptoms.   

Family and friends may notice your child isolating from loved ones, or lack of enjoyment in activities or sports. Teens or pre-teens who are engaging in underage drinking might also show signs of other mental health concerns, such as depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm behaviors, or anxiety.

Problematic Drinking Behaviors Among Adolescents

Teen girls drinking alcoholMany adolescents drink at a young age (defined as 12 years of age or younger [1]), due to potential risk taking behaviors, expectancies of self and others, personality characteristics or mental health issues, hereditary and environmental factors [1].

Approximately 5,000 people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking, to include motor vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides and drownings [1]. In 2005 a study was conducted by the Monitoring the Future, which surveys 8th-12th graders and found that ¾ of 12th graders, 2/3rd of 10th graders, and 2 in 5 of 8th graders have consumed alcohol [1].

Having Important Conversations

Approaching an adolescent who is engaging in underaged drinking can be daunting, but there are various areas to consider when wanting to start a conversation. First, be clear and consistent on rules around drinking [4].

Studies reveal that parents have the strongest impact on a child’s decision to drink [4]. It is imperative for parents to know child’s friends groups, when get togethers occur, and adult supervision. Know what your teen’s plans include, especially around high social activities.

Parents can set clear rules around drinking. If the family rule is that drinking under the age of 21 is prohibited, then the adolescent needs to be aware of this. Talk with your teen about calling you or a trusted adult to come get them if they are engaging in underage drinking and that they will talk about the situation the next morning after rest.  

Teens need to be aware of the effects of alcohol while driving, such as, that it can slow a person’s reflexes to stop quickly or avoiding a collision is much higher when under the influence.

Another effect of alcohol is decrease of eye muscle function, where the eye moves significantly more slow, resulting in blurred or impaired vision with night driving and color perception [1].

When under the influence of alcohol while driving can also affect a person’s perception of distance between cars, or lines on the pavement. Alcohol can also increase the effects of medications and drowsiness.

This effect can also inhibit a person’s ability to make quick, rational decisions [2]. Discussing long-term effects of alcohol, as well as health risks, are also important. Being able to talk openly as a family about peer pressure, how to resist it, and practicing saying “no” can help your teen feel comfortable doing this outside the home.

Find out what makes the teen drawn to using alcohol and what maintains that behavior. Being able to communicate with children and teens is important to learning about their alcohol usage and potential struggles. Listening as a parent/caretaker can help keep the communication open to the young person’s perceptions and beliefs.

It is important to remember that teens will drink occasionally and that talking about an agreement can help keep underage drinkers safe. Contracts may include the family rules, expectations, and limits of underage drinking.

Families often work out written contracts, where each party signs and is under the knowledge that if drinking and driving the teen will lose their car keys, or be grounded from seeing friends or extracurricular activities.

Rates of binge drinking among adolescents from 2012-2014 have declined, according to SAMHASA’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health [3]. Even based on these findings, over 5 million youth between ages 12-20 report being binge drinkers. This 2014 study showed that 77% of current underage drinkers reported drinking while with a group, while 6.3% reported drinking alone [3].

Parental Influence on Adolescent Behavior

Parents can take safeguards to help keep adolescents safe. Firstly, monitor alcohol in the home. Parents can restrict children’s access to substances if the set rule is no drinking prior to age 21 in the home. Alcohol can be stored in a locked closet, not having any alcohol in the home, or monitor alcohol supply regularly.

Young woman sitting in ballSecondly, knowing teens social circle can help assess potential drinking behavior. Teens often access alcohol through friends or friends’ parents. Discussing with the parents of all of your child’s friends can be helpful for the social group to know limits and boundaries with underage drinking.

Having a network of parents who are in similar mindset regarding drinking can decrease underage drinking [4].

Preparing for special events, holidays or family events can be of special consideration when Approaching an Adolescent Who is Engaging in Underage Drinking. Planning ahead and reviewing the family rules around alcohol can help reduce the likelihood of drinking.

Statistics show that 43% of 9th-12th graders in the United States have had at least 1 drink in the last month [1, 4]. Many parents do believe that consumption in the home is safe but it can increase a teens access to alcohol, or encouragement of underage drinking.

Open communication with the entire family where there are multiple children, can be a platform for parents to remind and review rules around underage drinking.

Talking with an early adolescent (age 11-14 years) can have some unique guidelines. At this stage, most early teens are egocentric in approach to the world, and value peer acceptance. Risk taking behaviors are higher at this stage and young teens tend to be intellectually immature.

Early adolescents are typically still concrete thinkers, and show difficulty in future thinking [4]. Most often teens at this stage are preoccupied with self and changing bodies. At this stage it is important for parents to be consistent with words and actions and following through with consequences.

Talking with an early teen may include the importance of open communication regarding activities with friends, gatherings at friends houses, and parental supervision during gatherings (or lack thereof). Informing the teen that alcohol may be present and how to stand firm to peer pressure.

Sad teen boyDuring the middle adolescent years (15-17) is where where the teen may struggle with peer relationships and separation from parents [4]. Middle teens tend to seek to find individual identities and peer acceptance.

Testing family and parental limits is a central part of the age/stage development. Often teens during these years engaged in experimental behaviors with alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and sexual activity. It is important to talk with the teen about refusal skills for peer pressure, and coping skills to manage situations where peer pressure could occur.

Reviewing and setting rules around underage drinking with these teens can help reduce underage drinking. Discuss with the teen what they think an unsafe environment is as well as their views on drinking and at-risk behaviors.

Parents can work with the middle adolescent on a ‘code word’ or ‘safe word’ where they can contact the parent to get them home safely, no questions asked during transportation, when they feel in danger or an unsafe environment.

Late adolescence (18-21 years) is the time where teens are approaching adulthood and are physically and intellectually mature [4]. This population may want information and advice from parents, but continued independence and freedom.

Being able to have conversations around parental concerns, safety, and expectations around underage drinking. Having relaxed, non-judgemental conversations with this teen can help have an open and honest conversation.

In conclusion, Approaching an Adolescent Who is Engaging in Underage Drinking includes being aware of alcohol within the home and monitoring alcohol use among early, middle, and/or late adolescent children.

Know the teens friends and family perceptions around alcohol. Work with your child to ensure safe ways of getting home, to include a safe or code word.

Enabling your child with coping skills and responses to resist peer pressure around underage drinking can reduce likelihood of drinking. Remember to keep the lines of communication open, non-judgemental, and firm around boundaries and expectations to underage drinking.


Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS, is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS) who works with individuals and families in the area of eating disorders. Mrs. Lyons works in the metropolitan St. Louis area and has been practicing in the field for 11 years. Libby is also trained in Family Based Therapy (FBT) to work with children-young adults to treat eating disorders. Mrs. Lyons has prior experience working with the United States Air Force, Saint Louis University, Operating Officer of a Private Practice, and currently works with both Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute within their Eating Disorders Program and Fontbonne University


[1]: Why Do Adolescents Drink, What Are the Risks, and How Can Underage Drinking Be Prevented?
[2]: [2] The Alcohol Talk: What to Say if Your Teen is Already Drinking

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 1, 2017.
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.