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So you’ve learned your teen son or daughter is drinking – now what?

You know that a lot of teens drink and you may well have consumed alcohol during your high school days, but you also know how poorly teens handle themselves while under the influence and how easy it is to develop an alcohol abuse problem. If you're like a lot of parents - you're just not sure about what you're supposed to do!?!

What you need to do – what’s appropriate for the situation – depends a great deal on the age of your son or daughter and just how much drinking we’re talking about.

You wouldn’t send a teen who’d experimented with alcohol a couple of times to rehab and likewise you’d hardly expect a teen who’d already developed a problem to change just because they got grounded for a couple of weeks!

To help you get a better understanding of how serious your teen’s problem may be, take a look at clinical guidelines developed for family doctors by the experts at the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA). Although a great many variables can influence the severity of any situation (such as co-occurring disorders, family history of alcoholism etc.) one very simple way to assess the problem is to take a look at just how much drinking we’re talking about and use that as a starting point for determining the seriousness of the situation.

Based on levels of consumption, the NIAAA recommends that doctors grade teens and preteens who have admitted to intentionally drinking more than a few sips of alcohol as either at:

  1. Lower risk of developing problems
  2. Moderate risk of developing problems
  3. High risk of developing problems

Based on age grouping, here are the alcohol consumption levels and their corresponding risk profile.

Age 11 and under

Any intentional drinking of more than a few sips of alcohol puts the child in the high risk category for developing a problem

Age 12 to 15

Drinking more than a few sips of alcohol on 5 days or fewer within the past year puts a teen at moderate risk of developing a problem with alcohol. Teens who drank on 6 or more days within the last year are at high risk of developing a problem

Age 16 

Drinking between 1 and 5 days within the past year puts an adolescent at lower risk to develop a problem, drinking between 6 and 11 days within the past year puts a teen at moderate risk to develop a problem and drinking 12 or more times per year puts the teen in the high risk category

Age 17

Drinking between 1 and 5 days within the last year puts a teen at lower risk to develop a problem, drinking between 6 and 23 days per year puts a 17 year old at moderate risk to develop a problem and drinking more than twice a month (24 days per year or more) puts a 17 year old teen at high risk to develop an alcohol problem

Age 18

18 year old teens who drink 12 days per year or fewer are at lower risk to develop a problem, those who drink between 12 and 51 days per year are at moderate risk and drinking once a week or more puts an 18 year old at high risk to develop a problem1

So What Should You Do When Your Teen Is at High Risk to Develop an Alcohol Problem?

Based on the information above you can use your child’s age and drinking frequency to check on their risk profile. Experts from NIAAA do not recommend a single course of action for all children and teens in the high risk category but they do suggest that these teens may require referrals to more specialized substance abuse treatment professionals or programs.

If your child falls into the high risk category you may want to consider talking with your family doctor or another trusted health professional about your child’s situation to get advice about how to proceed.

At Risk Teens – Why Is Identification and Intervention So Important?

Unfortunately, based on the statistics, your kids are probably going to drink and even binge drink before the end of high school – after all, 70% of 18 year old teens are drinking alcohol and 25% of high school seniors have engaged in binge drinking within the last 2 weeks.

If underage drinking is so commonplace then, why is it so important to identify those most at risk of taking up the habit early and of drinking the most heavily?

Although most teens start drinking early, and the commonality of the experience seems to normalize the practice, teens who drink and binge drink are really putting themselves in harm’s way

The consequences of teen drinking can include:

  • At increased risk of suicide, trauma, death, STDs, academic failure and many more secondary consequences
  • Teens who drink are far more likely to develop later in life alcohol abuse disorders than those who wait until the age of 21 to begin drinking
  • Teens who drink heavily during adolescence can cause lasting changes to their still developing brains and these brain changes can result in life-long memory and other higher order thinking process deficits
  • Teens who are drinking are more likely than teens who are not to also be engaging in other risky behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes or using illicit drugs

Parents who can delay the age of drinking onset  or reduce total drinking quantity and frequency through measures like early detection and intervention do a great deal to protect their kids!


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Page last updated Oct 24, 2011

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