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Why Teens Shouldn’t Drink Alcohol

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Individuals under the age of 21 are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol and experience disproportionate harm from alcohol use. Although alcohol impacts adults as well, the negative impacts of alcohol on a developing brain are significant and long lasting.

Delaying the initiation of drinking alcohol until the age of 21 greatly minimizes the negative and long-term impact of alcohol on the brain. To equip you, as a parent or someone in a parenting role, to have conversations about alcohol and the importance of delaying alcohol until 21, let’s explore reasons to be concerned about alcohol use, consequences of alcohol use, and specific strategies you can implement to encourage your child to delay alcohol use.

Most Montana parents (91%) DISAPPROVE of high school students drinking alcohol.1

Why Be Concerned?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes, overdoses, and suicides account for 6 out of every 10 deaths of children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 25 in the United States. The misuse of alcohol is a contributing factor to these deaths.2

Alcohol is the most commonly misused substance among youth and young adults in the United States. In the U.S., underage drinking resulted in approximately 119,000 emergency room visits (in 2013) and more than 4,300 deaths (in 2010). Underage drinking leads to academic problems in school, legal problems, physical and sexual assaults, unwanted pregnancies, suicides, vehicle crashes, abuse of other drugs, and lifelong impacts on brain development.3 In 2017, one-third of Montana high school students reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, and about one in six students reported drinking to get drunk (consuming four or five drinks in a couple of hours).4

Drinking can cause significant and long-lasting changes in the structure and function of the brain.5 However, these negative impacts can be significantly reduced when initiation of drinking is delayed past 21 years of age.

Parents and those in a parenting role underestimate the likelihood that their child could be drinking and the risks teens face from alcohol use.6 Further, parents underestimate the impact they can have on reducing the likelihood that their teen will drink.7 Most teens are exposed to alcohol, and there is no “typical” youth who drinks. All children are at risk, and all parents have the potential to reduce this risk.

Consequences of Underage Drinking

Alcohol use has both short-term and long-term impacts on the brain.

Short-Term Consequences

In the short term, alcohol use impacts inhibitions and memory and affects decision-making skills resulting in impulsive behavior and risky choices. This potentially increases the risk for having an alcohol-related traffic crash, getting into fights, or making unwise decisions about sex.

Alcohol affects coordination, balance, vision, and speech. Drinking too much alcohol can also lead to alcohol poisoning. If someone who is intoxicated passes out, they are at risk of choking because reflexes like gagging are suppressed. So, if they vomit, it becomes hard for them to clear their throat and continue breathing.

Long-Term Consequences

In the long term, alcohol use can impact brain development by changing the structure and function of the brain making it more difficult to learn new behaviors, make memories, feel motivated, and regulate emotion.

  • Early use of alcohol can cause permanent learning disabilities.
  • People who reported drinking before age 15 were four times more likely to become dependent or misuse alcohol later in life.8
  • Alcohol is an addictive substance, and the longer youth delay using alcohol the less likely they are to develop a problem with alcohol later in life.9
Alcohol use impacts development in a variety of different ways.

Most Montana parents (90%) DISAGREE that drinking among teens is safe as long as they do not drive after drinking.1

The Key Role of Parents

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you are the most important, number one, influence in your child’s life.10 You play an essential role in your child’s decision to not drink alcohol.11 Indeed, children who have parents who are actively involved in their lives are less likely to drink alcohol.

When parents talk with their children about alcohol and the negative impacts, model healthy and positive behavior, and stay involved in their children’s lives, they have a direct impact on whether their children decide to drink.

The age at which a child drinks matters in terms of the negative effects of alcohol. If a parent or one in a parenting role can delay the age at which their child initiates alcohol use, the parent can greatly reduce repercussions of alcohol on their child’s brain development.12

Youth who learn about the risks of drug use from their parents are less likely to use drugs than those who don’t.13

Youth desire the approval of their parents, and two-thirds of youth ages 13 to 17 say that losing their parents’ respect is one of the main reasons they don’t use drugs.13

Youth who feel closely connected to their parents are less likely to use alcohol.13

Strategies to Delay Alcohol Use

Talk and Listen

  • Have frequent conversations with your teen about alcohol, peer pressure, and decision making in risky situations. These conversations can begin as early as 8 years old. You don’t have to wait for your child to bring it up, nor do you have to wait for the right situation. Any moment is a teaching moment, and having conversations frequently without it needing to be an event helps your teen know that they can bring up difficult topics anytime. Ask a question like “Why do you think it is important not to drink until you are over 21?”
  • Change the discussion with your teen from “right and wrong” to “not now.” Avoid exaggerating the negative impacts of alcohol use. Stick with the facts and have a conversation that is less about whether alcohol is right or wrong and more about making a choice to not drink now.
  • Equip your teen with refusal strategies and practice these with your teen. Talk about different ways to say no and run through different “what if” scenarios. The more your teen practices with you, the more prepared they will be to use these skills in higher-risk situations. You might ask “How would you respond if your friend insists on driving even though you know your friend has been drinking?”
  • Avoid sending mixed messages about alcohol. Know that you are always modeling for your child. Never drink and drive. Discuss your decision to not drink and drive. If you drink in front of your teen, drink small amounts so your teen can see what healthy moderation looks like for when they are an adult.
  • Prepare your teen for alcohol-related emergencies so your teen knows what to do in case they decide to drink and need a ride home or if your teen has a friend who is drunk and needs medical attention.
  • Keep talking even when your teen decides to drink or violates an agreement or rule. Keep the lines of communication open.

Information on intentional communication can be found in the I Want to Know More section of the ParentingMontana.org website.

Most Montana parents (93%) agree that parents should discuss their children’s future personal choices about alcohol with older teens to prepare their children for when they turn age 21.1

Establish Clear Rules

  • Develop rules with your teen regarding alcohol use. Cover a variety of different scenarios including drinking at home, drinking at a friend’s house, buying alcohol, drinking and driving, riding with someone who has been drinking, etc.
    • “I want us to be really clear about what the rules are given you are going to this party…”
    • “Tell me what you understand about our agreements regarding drinking as well as drinking and driving.”
    • “Let’s talk through why it is so important that you are where you say you are and what happens if you are not.”
  • Develop alternatives for each of these behaviors as well as clear expectations regarding what behavior you are seeking. It is helpful for a teen to know what you do want to see, not just what you don’t want to see.
  • Set clear consequences for violations of these rules. The consequences need to be clear, immediate, and bothersome.
  • Catch your teen doing things right. Work hard to look for times when your teen is abiding by the rules. Praise your teen for this behavior.
  • Apply consequences when the rules are not followed.

Most Montana parents (94%) agree that parents should establish rules and consequences about not drinking for their high school age children.1

Model Positive Behaviors

  • Include your teen in conversations about complex topics like current affairs, moral dilemmas, or discussions about addiction and crime.
  • Take responsibility for your actions and avoid blaming outcomes on others. This will help teach your child to take responsibility for their own actions as well.
  • Talk overtly about your values. One way to do this is to share with your child the values that are driving your decision making.
  • Rather than only saying “no” to something, provide them with the rationale. This will help them understand your values and develop decision-making skills.
  • Model thoughtful decision making. Talk about your process of making decisions and walk your child through how you consider options as well as the consequences of each option. This will help your child slow down when making decisions and think through consequences.
  • Be careful about making statements such as, “It was such a rough day at work, I need a drink” in front of your child. Statements like these can teach children that alcohol is an appropriate way to manage stress.
  • If you drink in front of your child, do so in moderation.
  • Never drink and drive, and always use a seat belt.


  • Monitor your child’s activities so you know where they are at all times.
    • “Thank you for telling me where you will be this evening. I will follow up by calling you as well as calling the house where you will be.”
    • “I know we agreed to an 11pm curfew, and you were back later than that. Let’s talk through what happened, what you could have done differently, and the consequences of your actions.”
  • It is normal for a teen to lie about their whereabouts, especially if they think they can get away with it. Check they are actually where they say they are. For example, if your child says they are at a friend’s house, call the parents to verify.
  • If you are hosting a party at your home, monitor your teen and your teen’s friends on a regular basis. You can do this under the guise of offering them food.
  • If your child will be at a party at someone else’s house, talk with the host about whether alcohol will be served and how the kids will be supervised. Be open about doing this so your child knows that you take this seriously.

Clarify Misperceptions

  • Teens are influenced by what they perceive others are doing. Unfortunately, they frequently overestimate how often other teens drink resulting in your teen believing that drinking is not a big deal.14, 15 Explain to your teen that most teens don’t drink.14, 15
    • “It sounds like you think most teens drink regularly. In fact, most Montana teens don’t drink regularly. Let’s talk more about that.”
    • “I’m worried we don’t see eye to eye on this. Let’s talk through it.”
  • If your teen disagrees with you about the prevalence of drinking, ask them more about their views and why they believe as they do.
  • Avoid getting into arguments, and instead gather information together. Do some research on prevalence rates in your city, county, or state together.
  • Avoid adding to the misperceptions by making statements like, “Being a teen is about drinking” or “Making bad choices is what teens do.”


The teen brain goes through a significant maturation process until the mid twenties. During this vulnerable time for the developing brain, alcohol use can significantly impact the structure and function of the developing brain, and some of the impacts can be long lasting.

By delaying the initiation of alcohol use, youth can greatly reduce these negative impacts. As a parent or one in a parenting role, you are key to helping your child prevent harm associated with alcohol. By implementing strategies such as talking and listening, establishing rules, modeling positive behavior, monitoring, and clarifying misperceptions, you can make a difference in your child’s life.

Connect with other Montana parents about underage drinking and drugs at LetsFaceItMt.com.

Download and print the at-a-glance resource highlighting key information for Underage Drinking.


[1] Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2018). 2017 Montana Parent Survey Key Findings Report, Bozeman, MT: Montana State University.
[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Fact Sheets – Underage Drinking. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm
[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (1991-2017). High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data.
[5] Johnston, L.D., Miech, R.A., O’Malley, P.M., Miech, R.A., Schulenberg, J.E., & Patrick, M.E. (2018). Monitoring the future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2017: 2017 Overview- Key findings on adolescent drug use [PDF-4.4 MB]. Ann Arbor, MI
[6] Baxter, L., Bylund, C., Imes, R., & Routsong, T. (2009). Parent-child perceptions of parental behavioral control through rule-setting for risky health choices during adolescence. Journal of Family Communications, 9, 251-271.
[7] O’Donnell, L., Stueve, A., Duran, R., Myint-U, A., Agronick, G., Doval, A., & Wilson-Simmons, R. (2008). Parenting practices, parents’ underestimating of daughters’ risks, and alcohol and sexual behavior of urban girls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 496-502. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.10.008
[8]. Grant, B.F., and Dawson, D.A. (1998). Age at onset of drug use and its association with DSM–IV drug abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 10:163–173, PMID: 9854701.
[9] Giedd, J.N., Blumenthal, N.O., Jeffries, et al. (2010). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2 no. 10 (1999): 861-3.
[10]. Clark, T., Nguyen, A., Belgrave F., & Tademy, R. (2011). Understanding the dimensions of parental influence on alcohol use and alcohol refusal efficacy among African American adolescents. Social Worker Research, 35(3), 147-157.
[11] Habib, C., Santoro, J., Kremer, P., Toumbourou, J., Leslie, E., & Williams, J. (2010). The importance of family management, closeness with father and family structure in early adolescent alcohol use. Addiction, 105, 1750 -1758.
[12] Grant, B.F., and Dawson, D.A. (1998). Age at onset of drug use and its association with DSM–IV drug abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 10:163–173, PMID: 9854701.
[13] The U.S. Department of Education, The Drug Enforcement Administration. (2014). Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention. Justice.Gov. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2018-06/growing-up-drug-free-2017.pdf
[14] Kann, L., McManus, T., & Harris, W.A., (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2017. MMWR Surveill Summ 2018;67(No. SS-8):1–114.
[15] Johnston, L.D., Miech, R.A., O’Malley, P.M., Miech, R.A., Schulenberg, J.E., & Patrick, M.E. (2018). Monitoring the future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2017: 2017 Overview- Key findings on adolescent drug use [PDF-4.4 MB]. Ann Arbor, MI
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2018). Why Teens Shouldn’t Drink Alcohol. Retrieved from https://parentingmontana.org.


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