Parents should start talking to their children about alcohol at age 9, long before they take their first sip, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics aimed at preventing binge drinking in young people.
By age 13, about one in five adolescents have had at least one sip of alcohol, with more than three in four having done so by 12th grade, the authors wrote in the report, published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics. Even more alarming, the report says, is that as many as 50 percent of high school students currently drink alcohol, and within that group, up to 60 percent binge drink.
Parents may not realize their kids are trying booze so young. And pediatricians may not think to ask a pre-teen about it.
But the reason to start talking to kids about alcohol before they even reach middle school is that “kids are starting to develop positive impressions [about alcohol] as early as 9 years,” Dr. Lorena Siqueira, a Miami pediatrician, and colleagues write in the journal report. So for prevention to work, it’s better for parents to influence children’s ideas about alcohol early, rather than trying to change their impressions later, from positive to negative, the authors explain.
“[Alcohol] is the substance most frequently abused by children and adolescents,” the authors write, but because it’s a legal substance, the consequences are often downplayed. Parents and doctors need to make sure their children know that drinking comes with serious risks, particularly for young people.
What is binge drinking?
Binge drinking is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six adults binge drinks about four times a month. But although binge drinking in adults refers to five or more alcoholic drinks for men, and four or more for women over a 2-hour period, the cutoffs are lower for teens because of their smaller size and lower tolerance, the report says.
“We must approach drinking in children, particularly binge drinking, differently than we do in adults,” Siqueira said.
For some teens, having even three drinks is considered binge drinking, according to the report. And having fewer drinks than that should not be considered safe, the authors stress. “Drinking levels that may cause little or no problem for adults may be dangerous for adolescents,” they write.
Part of the problem is how adolescents drink, Siqueira said. They often turn to vodka and flavored liquors, she said. And they drink very fast, often directly from the bottle, with the goal of getting drunk — and this can kill them, she said.
In fact, alcohol use is involved in each of the leading causes of death in adolescents — accidents, suicides, and homicides. Nearly a third of fatal car accidents among 15- to 20-year-olds involve alcohol, the report says, and half of all serious head injuries in adolescents are linked to alcohol consumption.
Drinking at a young age may also interrupt key processes of brain development and lead to alcohol-induced brain damage. It also greatly increases the risk of developing substance use problems later on. And recent research suggests that binge drinking during adolescence can cause significant impairments in immune functioning, leading to a heightened risk of infection, slower healing time, and increased trauma-related mortality.
Tips for parents
To warn children about the dangers of alcohol abuse, the authors recommend that parents use every available opportunity to talk — not lecture — about the issue.
Alcohol is ubiquitous, the authors say, and kids see it everywhere — on the sides of buses, on billboards and in movies. Parents can use these opportunities to engage in an ongoing conversation about alcohol — so if you see alcohol in a movie, talk about that. Or if you drive past a car accident, talk about the dangers of drunk driving. These ongoing discussions are more effective at getting the message across than a single conversation or lecture about drinking.
Parents should also set a good example for their kids, the authors said. Eighty percent of teenagers say that their parents are the biggest influence on their decision to drink, according to the report.
That doesn’t mean parents can’t have a glass of wine in front of children, but getting drunk in front of the kids is a bad idea, the authors say. Parents should also avoid talking about alcohol to fix problems, like coming home and saying, “I need a drink,” they add.
And when parents take their kids to the doctor for a checkup, they should let the child talk to the doctor alone, the report says. This way, kids can feel like they’re in a judgement-free environment.
Here are some additional conversation tips for parents of adolescents from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
- Show you disapprove of underage drinking.
- Show you care about your child’s happiness and well-being.
- Show you’re a good source of information about alcohol.
- Show you’re paying attention and you’ll notice if your child drinks.
- Build your child’s skills and strategies for avoiding underage drinking.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers more advice for parents through their underage drinking prevention campaign, “Talk. They Hear You.”