Risks of underage drinking
Puberty and the teenage years are a time of change. Your child may have just started high school or just gotten a driver's license. They may have a sense of freedom they never had before.
Teenagers are curious. They want to explore and do things their own way. But pressure to fit in might make it hard to resist alcohol if it seems like everyone else is trying it.
Alcohol use is not only an adult problem. Most American high school seniors have had an alcoholic drink within the past month.
When a child begins drinking before age 15, he or she is much more likely to become a long-term drinker, or problem drinker. About 1 in 5 teens are considered problem drinkers. This means they:
- Get drunk
- Have accidents related to drinking
- Get into trouble with the law, their families, friends, schools, or the people they date
The best time to begin talking with your teen about drugs and alcohol is now. Children as young as 9 years old may become curious about drinking, and they may even try alcohol.
Alcohol can cause injury or death
Drinking can lead to making decisions that cause harm. Alcohol use means any of the following are more likely to occur:
- Car crashes
- Falls, drowning, and other accidents
- Violence and homicide
- Being a victim of violent crime
Risky sexual behavior
Alcohol use can lead to risky sexual behavior. This increases the risk of:
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Unwanted pregnancy
- Sexual assault or rape
Drinking and school
Over time, too much alcohol damages brain cells. This can lead to behavior problems and lasting damage to memory, thinking, and judgment. Teens who drink tend to do poorly in school and their behaviors may get them into trouble.
Health problems related to alcohol
The effects of long-term alcohol use on the brain may be life-long. Drinking also creates a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Drinking during puberty can also change hormones in the body. This can disrupt growth and puberty.
Too much alcohol at one time can cause serious injury or death from alcohol poisoning. This can occur with having as few as 4 drinks within 2 hours.
Get help for your child
If you think your child is drinking but will not talk with you about it, get help. Your child's health care provider may be a good place to start. Other resources include:
- Local hospitals
- Public or private mental health agencies
- Counselors at your child's school
- Student health centers
- Programs such as Alateen, part of the Al-Anon program: www.al-anon.org/for-alateen
American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Substance Abuse. Alcohol use by youth and adolescents: a pediatric concern. Pediatrics. 2010;125:1078-1087. PMID: 20385640 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20385640.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and American Academy of Pediatrics. Alcohol screening and brief intervention for youth: a practitioner's guide. 2011. Available at: pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Practitioner/YouthGuide/YouthGuide.pdf. Accessed on May 14, 2014.
Sherin K, Seikel S. Alcohol use disorders. Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 49.
Review Date: 5/14/2014
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.