America’s Ambivalence About Youth and Alcohol May Put Kids at Risk

This is the second post in a series.

A six-year study of adolescent decision-making by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance revealed spikes in youth alcohol use (between 6th and 7th grades) and other drug use (between 8th and 9th grades). These “Decision Points” has helped parents know when it’s best to talk about these issues with their children in middle school and high school.

New data collected by the University of Michigan tells a different story: One in ten preteen children say they’re curious about using alcohol or tobacco products and one in fifty say they’re curious about using marijuana. Perhaps more surprising, up to 35 percent of the children’s parents said their kids may have easy access to alcohol at home and 25 percent hadn’t yet set rules for their preteen children about whether they’re allowed to use these substances (Gavin, 2022).

And a recent study of high school students in two suburbs of New York City confirmed (again) that parents, not peers, are the most powerful influencers when it comes to alcohol use.

What are parents waiting for? That void is surely filled by daily images portraying alcohol as a key ingredient in having fun, watching sports, or finding friends.

And these messages seem to be resonating with boys more so than girls.

In truth, America has long been ambivalent about kids and alcohol, with some believing it’s better to teach children about alcohol by providing it at home. For example, the SADD-Liberty Mutual study reported that more than half (57 percent) of high school students who say their parents allow them to drink at home (even just once in a while or on special occasions) reported drinking with friends, as compared to just 14 percent whose parents forbid alcohol use.

Of course, underage drinking may seriously affect academics, sports, and social activities and may lead to increases in physical problems, delayed sexual development, and sexual violence.

Here are some things parents need to know.

  • Parents are key influencers of the decisions teenagers make.

As children wade into adolescence, it is common for parents to believe they have little influence on their children, partly because their kids are working on the key developmental demand of becoming more independent from their parents. Yet, the opposite is true. Teenagers need their parents to be there for them and be supportive of them more than at any other stage of growth, right behind infancy. What parents say and the expectations they convey are critically important. These conversations should not be “one and done” but instead be part of regular discussions with their adolescents. Teens want to hear what parents have to say and generally work hard to meet their expectations.

  • It’s best to talk with your children before their adolescence.

Early and often is the best advice for having open, honest communications with children and teens. If parents wait until their teens are in high school, it’s already too late. Kids know early about alcohol and other drugs and are trying to figure out who they want to be.

  • Some young people may try experimenting at a much younger age.

Some kids, younger than ever before, experiment with substance use. And the older they get, the more exposed they become to frequent opportunities to drink or use other drugs.

  • Staying silent about using any drug leaves kids on their own.

Parents should not leave kids on their own to decide what to do in situations where they may be offered drugs or alcohol. Not having those conversations may give the impression that their parents don’t really care what choices they make. Always start conversations from the perspective of love, health, and safety. Those things they understand.

For its part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises, “Parents play a critical role in their children’s lives. As their children grow into pre-teens and teens, parents worry about new risks they may experience. Parents can help by talking to their teen’s pediatrician about screening for substance use.

“Substance use by teens can have a big impact on their health and well-being. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), through a cooperative agreement with the CDC, developed a guide for implementing substance use screening in pediatric practices to help pediatricians address substance use concerns. The AAP recommends screening for substance use in children, starting at nine years of age” (CDC, 2022).

In addition, the CDC cites the damaging effects of alcohol use on growing children and teens.

  • Affects the growth and development of teens, especially brain development
  • Occurs more frequently with other risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex and dangerous driving
  • Contributes to the development of adult health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders

It is also clear that the younger children are when starting substance use, the more likely it is they will experience drug dependencies and addiction later in their lives.

Parents and other influential adults in children’s lives, including teachers and coaches, are well advised to clearly and consistently model appropriate behavior and speech about alcohol and other drug use.

The kids are listening, so it’s time to chuck the ambivalence and start those conversations.


CDC. (2022). Teen substance use & risks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (29 Aug. 2022).

Gavin, K. (2022). Study of pre-teens yields surprises about alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. Michigan Health Lab. July 1, 2022. University of Michigan.… (29 Aug. 2022).

SAMHSA. (2022). Why you should talk with your child about alcohol and other drugs. Talk. They Hear You. Substance Abuse Prevention. April 14, 2022.… (29 Aug. 2022).

Wallace, Stephen. (2008). Reality gap – Alcohol, drugs and sex: What parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: New York. Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing Company.

Leave a Comment