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Talking With Your Teens About Alcohol

Talking with teens can be hard at times, especially if you feel like they aren’t really listening to what you have to say. Bringing up a difficult topic such as underage drinking adds to the challenge. It’s important not to let that keep you from talking though!  Research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) shows that parents play an important role in how their children view and treat alcohol and drinking.

One half of all Maine high school students have tried alcohol.

This data comes from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey (MIYHS).  The survey is administered every two years to evaluate health-related behaviors and attitudes of students from 5th to 12th grade in Maine.  Alcohol is the most widely-used substance among American youth, making underage drinking an important public health issue. 

Why is teen drinking a problem?

Teen drinking is an issue for a few reasons. One of the biggest concerns is how alcohol impacts teen’s developing brain. The human brain doesn’t fully develop until about age 25. Drinking also affects the brain in the short-term. Regular drinking and binge-drinking (consuming large amounts in short periods of time) are even riskier for developing brains.

The real health toll of underage drinking.

Media makes drinking alcohol look like fun and an important part of the high school experience.  In general, alcohol is shown to be a key part of being social and celebrating, to have health benefits, to help people relax, and to go well with your meals.

The reality is that underage drinking poses serious risk to youth in both the short-term and long-term.

In the short term, an intoxicated or drunk teen may:

  • Have a harder time making good decisions

  • Be more likely to engage in risky behavior such as violence, drunk driving, and unprotected sexual activity

  • Have difficulty with coordination including loss of balance, slurred speech, and blurry vision

In the long-term, drinking as a teen may:

  • Have negative effects on the brain’s key roles, like learning and information processing

  • Increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder as an adult

  • Increase the risk of developing cancer

Talking to your teen helps.

The messages teens get from media and what they learn in school health classes can often clash. By talking to your teen you can inform them about the risks around drinking and help them feel more informed to make healthy choices.

When talking to your teen about alcohol, think about the following tips:

  • Talk early and talk often! Discuss your concerns and your teens’ concerns about alcohol. When teens know how their parents/guardians feel and think about underage drinking, they are more likely to follow those thoughts. Take advantage of every day events that may be a teachable moment.  For example, if you’re watching a TV show together that shows teenage drinking ask your teen what they think about it.

  • Set clear rules and expectations. Continue to talk about rules and what is expected. Use “I” statements to express care, not control. Example: “I worry about your safety when you don’t tell me where you are. I need to know that you are safe and will follow our rules about not drinking.” 

  • Approach with openness and active listening. Ask open-ended questions like, “What would you do if there was alcohol at this party?” instead of “Are you going to drink tonight?” Try not to ask questions that can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.” This can allow you to have a deeper conversation with your teen.

  • Offer empathy and support. Let your teen know that you understand what they are going through if they are having a rough time and stress that alcohol would not be a healthy or helpful way to cope with problems. Foster trust and encourage safe choices.
  • Avoid having a fight. You won’t be able to communicate well with your teen if either of you are angry or upset. Take a time out and revisit the subject when you are both calm.

Written by Janet Dosseva, MPH who works in the Office of Substance Use Prevention, in the Public Health Division of the City of Portland. If you have any questions or want more information, please contact Janet Dosseva, MPH at

If you would like more information on this, or any other health related topic, the health educators at the Learning Resource Center are happy to help. They provide trusted & reliable health information and connect people to local resources in the community. Connect with a health educator today! Be well, be well informed.

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