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Teen Drinking: Keeping Your Teen Safe on National Drinking Days

Perhaps your older teenager is planning on heading down to your city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. And perhaps you’re thinking, “What can happen? It’s only a parade.” Then again, when it seems as if every adult at that parade will celebrating with alcohol, you know there will probably be some teen drinking going on, too. So now you’re wondering “How can I keep my teen safe today?”

In towns and cities across the country, St. Patrick’s Day is as much about alcohol as honoring the Saint Patrick. (Wait, who was Saint Patrick exactly? Answer: the Patron Saint of Ireland.) And that includes the parade.

Here we go again. Another holiday where no matter how much we stress to our older teenagers that we don’t want them to drink, they may just do so anyway. Your Teen caught up with Dr. Eugene Shatz, a specialist in adolescent medicine with the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and Spectrum Health Medical Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to hear his ideas for how parents can talk about alcohol and drinking safety with older teenagers — 17 and 18 year olds who are headed off to college soon.

While your message should always be that you do not want your underage teenager to drink alcohol — it’s illegal after all — it’s not practical to think that your teenager will always honor your request, says Dr. Shatz. In fact, the research shows that the majority of teenagers will have experimented with alcohol by the time they graduate from high school. Teen drinking is a real and growing problem.

Signs your high school student may be planning on drinking this St. Patrick’s Day include taking public transportation to the parade (or other event); asking to skip school; and sleeping over at a friend’s house.

Of course, parents do have the option of saying “No” to any of the above.

Even if you say no, teenagers do tend to find ways to indulge if they really want to. That’s why it is important to have a discussion with your teens that does beyond telling them not to drink, which is necessary to say but should not be all you talk about.

3 Realistic Messages to Convey to Your Older Teens:

1. If you decide to drink, be careful.

Remind your older teenager to follow these “safe-party” rules, especially when drinking in bars or other public settings.

  • Never leave a cup unattended.
  • Refuse an open drink from anyone who is not a close friend.
  • Be aware of the taste, texture and appearance of their drink. Beverages that have been spiked with so-called “date-rape drugs,” may have a funny taste or color, though many of these drugs are virtually undetectable.
  • Use a buddy system (ask a friend to keep an eye on your drink when using the rest room, for example).

2. Do not binge drink.

Also talk to teenagers about the particular dangers of binge drinking, which is having more than 2 or 3 drinks within an hour’s time. Binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning—which can be deadly–and an increase is highly risky behaviors, like driving under the influence, teen drug abuse, or unsafe sexual activity.

3. Never drink and drive.

When talking about teen drinking, says Dr. Shatz, remember the most important rule of all: the no-questions-asked ride home from mom or dad when the partying gets out of hand. It’s key to tell your teenager, frequently, that they should never drink and drive or accept a ride from  someone who has been drinking. Make sure your teenager feels comfortable calling you for a ride home if necessary. In fact, if your teenager does call you for a safe ride home, go out of your way to praise him. If you yell at your teenager, chances are he won’t call you again.

“Save the conversation about the alcohol until the next morning,” says Dr. Shatz, “when your teenager is safe at home.”

What to Say About Drinking to Younger Teens:

In a word, no. Drinking is not allowed. And it’s critical to do all that you can to make sure they stay away from alcohol.

If you’ve got a middle schooler or younger teenager (16 or under), then your conversations around alcohol need to be very different. In fact, parents should strive to keep younger teenagers away from alcohol. Period. That includes not allowing younger teenagers to attend parties where alcohol may be present.

Notably, when an adolescent uses recreational drugs before the age of 15, he’s ten times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem than if he’d waited to experiment until after 21. That’s because alcohol can permanently change the structure of an adolescent’s brain in a way that “teaches” the brain to need alcohol in ways that normal brains don’t.

You’ll find recommendations for how to keep younger teenagers away from alcohol in our article How Alcohol and Drugs Damage the Adolescent Brain (and What You Can Do About It)

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.

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