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Talking to Your Kids About Alcohol

Many kids and teens try alcohol during their high school and college years, before it's legal for them to drink it. Parents have a big effect on their child’s choices about drinking. So talk about alcohol use with your kids early and often as they grow up. 

A Guide for Talking to Kids by Age

Preschoolers

Preschoolers aren’t ready for a lot of information about alcohol. But you can set a good example by drinking responsibly (or not at all), being active, and eating healthy. If kids do have questions about alcohol, answer them simply and honestly.

Ages 4 to 7

Talk about alcohol when it comes up naturally. For example, if you’re watching TV and you see an ad for alcohol, you can ask your child if they know how drinking alcohol affects the body. Keep the info simple: Alcohol slows down the body and mind. It makes it hard to know things like when water is too deep or a car comes too close. And it gives people bad breath!

If your child asks why it’s OK for grownups to drink but not kids, explain that drinking can damage a growing body and increases the risk of drinking problems later in life.

Ages 8 to 11

Kids this age can hear about the effects of alcohol and why it’s dangerous for growing bodies and minds. 

You can talk about short-term effects of alcohol, like:

  • distorted vision, hearing, and coordination
  • altered perceptions and emotions
  • impaired judgment, which can lead to accidents, drowning, and other risky behaviors
  • bad breath
  • hangovers

And its long-term effects, such as:

  • liver damage
  • loss of appetite
  • stomach problems
  • heart and brain damage
  • memory loss

Kids this age want to fit in with their friends. Teach your child the importance of thinking and acting as an individual.

Ages 12 to 17

The teen years are a time to be a good listener and keep the lines of communication open. Keep setting a good example. Even if your kids don’t seem to be hearing what you say, studies show that parents really do influence teens’ behaviors.

Talk about good reasons not to drink, such as:

  • Drinking at a young age can lead to alcohol problems later.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to be sexually active earlier and to have unprotected sex.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to have problems in school.
  • Drinking can hurt athletic performance.
  • Drinking before age 21 is illegal.
  • Drinking can lead to long-term brain changes.

Lecturing about the facts on alcohol and using scare tactics can make teens shut down. But do be clear with your teen and say that you don’t want them to drink. If you have alcohol problems in your family, make sure your teen knows this could make them more likely to develop an alcohol problem.

Teens want to be liked and accepted by friends. Help yours work through different situations so they’re ready. What can they say at a party when someone offers them a drink? What if someone they’re supposed to drive with is drinking? Brainstorm together and let your teen know they can always call or text you and you will pick them up with no lecturing or punishment.

What Else Can Parents Do?

Parents are role models, even to teens. So set a good example by drinking responsibly (or not at all), not using alcohol as a stress reliever, and never driving after drinking. Regular, honest talks with your kids will help them make good decisions.

Still, parents should watch for problems and set rules. Ask your child to be honest with you if they do try alcohol. If you think your child has been drinking and hasn’t told you, don’t ignore it. If you think there’s a serious problem, your child’s doctor can help.

Other things you can do:

  • Know where your kids are and who they’re with.
  • Know how to get in touch with your child. They should have their phone with them and turned on, and you should have numbers for their friends or the number of the home they’re visiting.
  • Know the parents of your kids' friends and how to get in touch with them. 
  • For older kids and teens, talk about your values about alcohol with them. Be clear that you do not want your child drinking alcohol.
  • Tell your kids how often you want them to check in when they're away from home.
  • If your teen drives, tell them drinking any amount of alcohol and driving is not OK. Consider having a contract that you both sign that says all members of your family will not drink and drive. Be clear that your teen will lose driving privileges if they break the contract.
Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date reviewed: September 2020