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Preventing Alcohol Abuse Among Teens

By Alice R. McCarthy

Statistics indicate that drinking among our nation's youth (ages 12–17) has remained relatively stagnant over the past few years. Are you relieved? Don't answer too quickly.

Consider the following statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey in 1999:

  • More than half of U.S. people age 12 and older report they drink alcohol.
  • Roughly 20 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds drank alcohol at least once last month.
  • 7.8 percent of this age group engaged in binge drinking (consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a row).
  • 3.6 percent reported heavy alcohol use in the month before the survey.
  • Children as young as 8 and 9 years old cite alcohol as a problem in their lives, whether caused by the drinking done by other people in their lives or themselves.

You may not be relieved anymore. Underage drinking is a problem in the United States. It's a problem for families, schools, and communities.


Helping children and youth just say no

Parents tend to believe that their teens drink because of peer pressure. But more than 50 percent of students said "getting drunk" and simply having a good time is the major motivating factor in drinking, along with stress and boredom. Parents can help prevent underage alcohol use by sending a strong message at home. Here are some suggestions:

  • Discuss expectations with your children. Then work with them to meet those expectations.
  • Keep communication open about alcohol use. If you overreact to bad news associated with alcohol use by teens in your community, you are likely not to get a full story when you bring up the issue the next time.
  • Help your children develop a strong sense of self-esteem, along with the social skills necessary to withstand peer pressure to drink. Let them know they are loved and valued.
  • Plan and spend time with your children on a daily basis. They need to see how the rules you have set work with the experiences they have outside of the home, at school, or with friends.
  • Let them know you are aware of alcohol use in the school community, you know they may be encouraged by their peers to drink alcohol, and you know they'll have opportunities to drink.
  • Make an alcohol-free pact with your children through high school and college. Constantly remind them about the dangers of alcohol, including the possible lethal effect of binge drinking, and suggest other ways of dealing with stress and emotional problems.
  • Set consequences for your children's actions. Do not allow them to think they are "getting away" with behavior that's unacceptable to the family.
  • Adults who expect their teens not to drink alcohol have to be willing to listen to them talk about the pressures to drink. The more your teen is willing to talk with you about alcohol, the better the chances that he or she will not drink.

Above all, parents should set a good example, so that means analyzing your drinking habits and adjusting those habits to be consistent with the message you're sending your teen. Be moderate or abstain in your use of alcohol.


Alice R. McCarthy, Ph.D., is the author of the newly released third edition of Healthy Teens: Facing the Challenges of Young Lives. (Bridge Communications, Inc., 2000. Phone (800) 808-9314 to order a copy; the cost is $14.95.) McCarthy also writes and edits three Healthy Newsletters for parents of students in preK-8th-grades, which reach more than 1 million readers each year. She may be contacted at the toll-free number above.