What to do if you think your child is drinking

Guest blog post by Leah Kalk, LCPC, director of the Idaho RADAR Center and an adjunct faculty member at Boise State University.

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug among youth in the United States.

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over two million youth (ages 12-17) reported using alcohol in the past month. While we would like to further reduce this number, it is actually down by about half from the survey results in 2002 (where 4.4 million youth drank in the past month).

Why is preventing underage drinking important?

  1. Underage youth who drink are at higher risk for: injuries, using impaired judgment, either carrying out or being the victim of physical or sexual assault, problems in school, involvement with law enforcement, traffic accidents, and/or using other drugs.
  2. Youth who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder later in their lives.
  3. Even though, on average, youth drink less often than adults, when they do drink, they drink in a more dangerous way: binge drinking.

What can parents do?

The good news—parents can have a significant impact on their children’s decisions to drink or use other substances. Establishing open communication can make it easier for a child to feel comfortable speaking honestly to their parents. I have a teenager and I fully understand how difficult it can be to talk with one, so here are some tips:

  • Encourage your child to ask questions and listen without interrupting them.  Model the behavior you want your child to engage in when you speak about something important.
  • When talking with your teen, avoid questions that they can answer with just “yes” or “no.”  Rather, ask questions that will allow them to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings about the topic.
  • Don’t lecture! Or at least do it sparingly.  Teens often “tune out” when a lecture starts, and it is important that they feel part of the conversation and that you respect their viewpoint.

Communicate about alcohol
Parental disapproval of youth drinking is a key reason that children choose not to drink.  So that means parents need to talk with their kids about alcohol!  This isn’t a onetime conversation.  In fact, multiple short conversations throughout their adolescent years are likely to have a much bigger impact.

  • Ask what your teen knows or thinks about drinking (and listen without interrupting!).
  • Share some facts about alcohol with your teen (try not to use scare tactics).
  • Start a discussion about reasons not to drink.
  • Discuss scenarios where your teen might encounter alcohol and brainstorm with them how they might handle it.
  • Set clear expectations and boundaries with your teen about alcohol. Establish appropriate consequences and consistently enforce them.

Look for warning signs
Smelling alcohol on your teen’s breath or finding alcohol in their room is a pretty clear sign they are drinking, but other warning signs could indicate drinking or drug use as well (though some can reflect normal development).  Drinking or drug use is the more likely cause if you notice multiple signs at the same time or if some are extreme.

  • Mood changes
  • School problems
  • Rebelliousness
  • Friend changes
  • An “I don’t care” attitude
  • Physical or mental issues (memory problems, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech)

If you do determine that your child has been drinking, appropriate consequences are important.  But first, go back to communicating.  Calmly ask your child about the situation (and really listen to them).  Try to understand the circumstances and motivations for your teen’s drinking.  Review your expectations about drinking and the consequences.  Some possible consequences are:

  • Loss of privileges (cellphone, video games, car, going out with friends).
  • Extra chores.
  • Assign a project where your teen researches the risks of underage drinking and presents their findings to you.
  • Ask your teen for ideas about consequences and decide on one you both think is fair.

Finding help
If you believe your child’s drinking has become problematic, they may be in need of professional assistance.

The Idaho RADAR Center provides free informational resources (pamphlets, booklets, DVDs, curriculum) on prevention, education, treatment, and recovery to anyone in Idaho.  You can browse our entire catalog at radarcart.boisestate.edu/library and even place an order. Below are a few resources that might be helpful with the topic of this blog – all of which are available to order or as a pdf download.


About Leah Kalk

Leah Kalk, LCPC, is the director of the Idaho RADAR Center as well as an adjunct faculty member in the addiction studies department within the School of Social Work at Boise State University. Leah has worked in the mental health field in Idaho for over a decade. Her clinical work in the community includes counseling clients of all ages, with specific focus on refugees, juvenile justice, and individuals in crisis, experiencing suicidal ideation, or engaging in problematic substance use.  Leah serves on the Idaho Conference on Alcohol and Drug Dependency Foundation and the Institute for the Study of Behavioral Health and Addiction.

NIDA, Principles of Substance Abuse Prevention for Early Childhood.

NIDA, Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
SAMHSA, Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
NIAAA, Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
NIDA, Family Checkup.
SAMHSA, “Talk. They Hear You,” Underage Drinking Prevention National Media Campaign.