Although the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, teen drinking is extremely common. In 2019, 24 percent of teens between the ages of 14 and 15 reported having had at least one drink. 7 million underage drinkers ranging from 12 to 20 said they drank more than “just a few sips” of alcohol in the previous month1.
Young people don’t drink as often as adults do, but when they do drink, they drink a lot. In fact, binge drinking accounts for more than 90 percent of all alcoholic drinks consumed by young people.
Some parents prohibit their teens from drinking entirely. Others, feeling that they are fighting a losing battle, take a more radical approach: encouraging safe drinking or drinking in moderation. If you’re wondering, “Should I let my teenager drink?” it’s important to understand the risks and impact of alcohol on teens. This post will also discuss ways to educate teens and keep them safe.
Short-Term Risks Associated with Teens and Alcohol
What does alcohol do to a 16-year-old? Even a single night of heavy drinking is risky for teens2. In addition to the possibility of overdose, alcohol impairs decision-making and increases the chances of young people engaging in risk-taking behavior. These behaviors may include driving under the influence, engaging in unprotected sex, sexual assault, fighting, trespassing and vandalizing, and attempting suicide.
Even short-term choices and behaviors carry long-term consequences. They can potentially lead to arrest, pregnancy and STIs, injury, and death, as well as emotional damage and trauma.
Effects of Teenage Drinking on the Body
Consistently drinking alcohol, especially heavy drinking, has a long-term impact on the body. It weakens the immune system and is linked to numerous types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease, and digestive problems.
In particular, teens who begin drinking before age 15 have an increased risk of severe life-long issues3. Teens who drink are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder at some point in life, leading to additional health problems. They are also more likely to abuse other substances.
Effects of Teenage Drinking on the Brain
Teenage drinking also has a significant impact on the brain. Alcohol slows brain activity and may cause memory problems over time. Research shows that adolescents who drink heavily have diminished retrieval of both verbal and nonverbal material. They also perform worse than their peers on tests that require attention skills.
Studies in neuropsychology suggest that brain functioning is directly affected by adolescent alcohol use. It can impair executive functions like planning, prioritization, organization, and impulse control4. These skills are essential for success in school and the workplace.
Teens who drink alcohol are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders5. Alcohol does not necessarily cause these problems, but teens sometimes use alcohol to mask or soothe their issues with mental health. Ultimately, alcohol makes these problems worse.
Should I Let My Teenager Drink?
It’s clear that teen drinking is harmful for teens’ physical, mental, and emotional health. But you may still wonder if letting your teen drink at home will help them develop a safer, healthier relationship with alcohol.
No, according to most research in this area. A three-year study of middle school students found that drinking escalated the most in teens whose parents allowed them to drink6. These parents either let their children drink at home or provided alcohol for use outside the home. Another study demonstrated a link between drinking at home and drinking heavily outside the home7.
One study did conclude that allowing teens to drink in appropriate situations, like a sip of alcohol at a family event, can be a protective factor against abusing alcohol8. However, supplying alcohol for parties, regularly allowing drinking, and a permissive attitude about teen drinking can often have the opposite effect.
What Is the Best Way to Teach Teens About Alcohol?
Believe it or not, teens do listen to their parents about alcohol (at least more than you might expect). Consistently talking to your children about alcohol and the related risks makes a difference. Another risk you can mention to teens is the possibility of embarrassment, like vomiting in the middle of a party, if they drink.
Teens who know their parents would be upset if they drank alcohol are less likely to drink9. This is especially true when parents have an authoritative style, balancing discipline with love and warmth10. Teens parented in a neglectful, permissive, or authoritarian style may be less likely to respect rules and boundaries around drinking11.
Make your rules and expectations about drinking clear, and follow through consistently. Know your children’s friends and their parents, and stay actively involved in their lives. When necessary, compare notes with other parents about where your children are going and what they’re up to.
Finally, avoid drinking around children and teens, or model safe drinking behaviors. If you or your teen needs help managing your relationship with alcohol, Ria Health is here to support you. We offer virtual recovery coaching, support groups, tracking tools, and more through a telemedicine app.