What is alcohol?

alcoholAlcohol is a socially accepted drug that contains ethanol, a chemical substance found in beer, wine, or any liquor, considered as a psychotropic that changes brain function. That’s why the consumption of alcohol not only results in drunkenness, but also could develop a physical dependence or addiction, among other possible problems.

Why alcohol is a problem?

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism affects every organ in the body. Cardiomyopathy, high blood pressure, strokes, cirrhosis, or even different kind of cancers are some of the possible consequences. In minors, alcohol especially affects the brain (See “Alcohol and the teen brain”).
Youth who drink alcohol are also more likely to experience accidents and serious injuries, social problems, school absence and failing grades, physical and sexual assault, unplanned and/or unprotected sexual activity, abuse of other drugs, and even high risk of suicide.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System states that alcohol kills more teens than any illegal drugs combined.

Why is age of first use of alcohol so critically important?

According with the CDC, youth who start drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after the age of 21.[1]
Alcohol and the teen brain
Research shows that the human brain continues its development into the early 20’s, so drinking alcohol before that age can damage the brain’s growth. That’s why the minimum legal drinking age in United States is 21 years old.
Underage drinking especially affects the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain where memories are made. As an example, with just one or two drinks a teenager and even an adult, may have trouble remembering something he or she just learned. Heavy or binge drinking can also cause blackouts (lost memories of entire events). If alcohol damages the hippocampus severely enough, the person’s learning and memory system may be affected permanently. [2]
Children of alcoholics or alcohol abusers
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD), among other organizations, agree that a child with a parent who abuse alcohol (binge and/or heavy drinking), or the children of alcohol or drug addicted parents, are the highest risk group of all children to become alcohol and drug abusers due to both genetic and family environment factors. [3]

How can you know that your child has been using alcohol?

The following signs may indicate underage drinking: [4]

  • Mood and/or behavior changes, such as anger, irritability, defensiveness
  • School problems such as poor attendance, low grades, and/or problems with discipline
  • Rebelliousness
  • Changing group of friends
  • Low energy level
  • Loss interest in personal appearance and/or in regular activities
  • Finding alcohol among personal things
  • Smelling alcohol on his or her breath or clothe
  • Memory lapses, poor concentration
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech

Some of the signs could reflect normal teenage behavior. However, a problem is more likely to exist if you notice several of these signs at the same time.

What can you do to help prevent underage alcohol use?[5]

Be a positive role model

  • Know how to drink responsibly.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages in front of your kids.
  • Do not provide alcoholic beverages to your teens.

Be aware of factors that may increase the risk of teen alcohol use.

  • Monitoring of your children’s activities
  • Do not allow your teens to attend parties where alcohol is being served.

Strengthening of family bonding by using positive reinforcement, listening and communication skills and problem solving

Be involved in your teens’ life

    • Work with schools, communities and government to protect teens from underage alcohol use

Educate your teens about the laws related to underage drinking.

 Why do they drink?[6]

There are many reasons for teenage alcohol use. It’s important that you, as a parent, understand these reasons and talk to your kids about the dangers of drinking.

  • Other People — Teenagers see lots of people drinking alcohol at a party or at a restaurant. They see their parents and other adults drinking alcohol. Sometimes friends urge one another to try a drink but it’s just as common for teens to start drinking because it’s readily available and they see all their friends enjoying it. In their minds, they see drinking as a part of the normal teenage experience.
  • Popular Media — Forty-seven percent of teens agreed that movies and TV shows make drugs seem like an OK thing to do, according to a 2011 study. Not surprisingly, 12- to 17-year-olds who viewed three or more “R” rated movies per month were five times more likely to drink alcohol, compared to those who hadn’t watched “R” rated films.
  • Escape and Self-Medication — In situations when teens feel unhappy and can’t find a healthy outlet for their frustration or a trusted confidant, they may turn to alcohol to make them feel better.
  • Boredom — Teens who can’t tolerate being alone, have trouble keeping themselves occupied, or crave excitement are prime candidates for substance abuse. Not only does alcohol give them something to do, but it helps fill the internal void they feel. Further, they provide a common ground for interacting with like-minded teens, a way to instantly bond with a group of kids.
  • Rebellion — Alcohol is the drug of choice for the angry teenager because it frees him/her to behave aggressively.
  • Instant Gratification — Alcohol works quickly. The initial effects feel really good. Teenagers turn to alcohol use because they see it as a short-term shortcut to happiness.
  • Lack of Confidence — Many shy teenagers who lack confidence report that they’ll do things under the influence of alcohol that they might not otherwise. This is part of the appeal of alcohol even for relatively self-confident teens. Not only do you have something in common with the other people around you, but there’s the mentality that if you do anything or say anything stupid, everyone will just think you had too many drinks.
  • Misinformation — Perhaps the most avoidable cause of substance abuse is inaccurate information about drugs and alcohol. Educate your teenager about drug use, so they get the real facts about the dangers of drug use.

Myth & Fact

Myth: “Just a drink is not harmful for them”
Fact: Alcohol increases the risk for many deadly diseases, such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. Drinking too much alcohol too quickly can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can kill you.
 Myth: “Beer and wine are safer than liquor.”
Fact: Alcohol is alcohol in any form. It can cause you problems no matter how you consume it. One 12-ounce bottle of beer or a 5-ounce glass of wine (about a half-cup) has as much alcohol as a 1.5- ounce shot of liquor. Alcopops—sweet drinks laced with malt liquor—often contain more alcohol than beer!
Myth: “I can sober up quickly by taking a cold shower or drinking coffee.”
Fact: On average, it takes 2 to 3 hours for a single drink to leave the body. Nothing can speed up the process, including drinking coffee, taking a cold shower, or “walking it off.”
Legal consequences for providing or supplying alcohol to minors
As you may know the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, and it is illegal to sell alcoholic beverages to anyone who is underage. In addition, all states make it a crime if you supply an underage person with alcoholic beverages even when there is no money involved.
Providing alcohol to a minor is typically punished as a misdemeanor offense. However, the crime may also be considered a felony depending on the circumstances.

  • Jail sentences for misdemeanor convictions of supplying alcohol to a minor can be up to 12 months in a jail. Felony convictions result in prison sentences of up to a year in jail, and possibly five years or more.
  • A misdemeanor conviction for supplying alcoholic beverages to a minor can result in fines up to $1,000. Felony fines tend to be much higher and can exceed $50,000. 

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
[2] Too Smart to Start.
[3] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD),
[4] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA),
[5] Office of the Surgeon General. (2007). The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduec Underage Drinking: A Guide for Families (PDF 889KB) Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[6] Drug Free Organization.