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A Guide for Teens and Alcohol

March 31, 2015 by HealthyFamilies BC

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Alcohol is popular. But drinking can be risky, especially for young people. Help your teen make safe, healthy decisions around alcohol use by talking to them about what alcohol is, what it does to our bodies, and the risks involved. Here are facts about alcohol and ways to reduce the risk of harm for teens that choose to drink.


Even though there are risks involved with drinking, alcohol is a part of society. Chances are you remember growing up seeing your parents or older siblings drinking, people drinking on TV and in movies, in restaurants, at friends’ houses, and at sporting, community and cultural events.

Teens mimic what they see. They may want to know what it feels like to drink alcohol, or they may be attracted to things that make them feel older despite the potential for getting themselves into trouble.

Alcohol is a Drug

Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that changes the way you feel by tapping into the brain’s communication system and influencing the way nerve cells send, receive and process information.

Alcohol is also a depressant - it slows the system down, decreasing heart rate, breathing and ability to think, move and react to things happening around you.

Why Do People Drink Alcohol?

People have been using alcohol and other drugs for thousands of years. Some people drink to:

  • celebrate successes, like getting a promotion at work
  • mark rites of passage, like graduating or getting married
  • explore spiritual insights
  • relax or have fun
  • soothe pain and sadness

What Are Your Expectations?

Different families and cultural communities have different attitudes about introducing young people to alcohol. You may have the expectation that your child should refrain from drinking alcohol completely until they are adults (or that they never start drinking at all), believing that “no use” is the best way. Or, perhaps you feel comfortable allowing your teen to drink small amounts as part of a family tradition or cultural custom. The hope being that introducing them to controlled use of alcohol in safe social contexts will help to avoid the problems associated with uncontrolled use.

Whatever your expectations are, most prefer that teens delay the use of alcohol as long as possible, and hope their children do not develop problematic patterns of use. It’s a good idea to let your teen know your expectations and discuss alcohol and ways to manage its use.

What Are the Dangers of Drinking?

For thousands of years, humans have known the risks of drinking alcohol. In small amounts, it can make you feel happy, carefree, or energized. In large amounts, it can lead to bad choices and misery. How much risk is involved - and how much harm may result - depends on several factors:

  • More alcohol equals more risk - drinking large amounts or drinking more often increases risk substantially.
  • Younger age equals more risk - the human brain is not fully formed until well into adulthood and alcohol affects the development of young brains, especially if used regularly in large amounts, example: binge drinking.
  • Places, times and activities influence risk - drinking a glass of wine at a family celebration and then playing chess with grandpa is less likely to result in harm than drinking alcohol with a group of classmates and then riding bikes or skateboarding.

Your teenager may already know some of the risks of drinking too much from observing others or from what they’ve seen in the media. Drinking too much (getting drunk) can lead to:

  • Falls, sometimes causing serious injuries.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Car crashes, sometimes causing death.
  • Doing and saying embarrassing things you regret later.
  • Hurting or damaging relationships with people you care about.
  • Having sex with people you wouldn’t normally be attracted to.
  • Having careless sex, which could cause an unplanned pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
  • Tolerance - drinking too much too often can build up your tolerance to alcohol, which means you need to drink larger amounts in order to feel the effects. Tolerance can lead to a sense of dependence. When you start to depend on alcohol or any other drug, it gets harder to make healthy choices.

How to Manage Alcohol Use

It’s safest for young people to delay drinking altogether until at least their late teens. But, whatever age teenagers choose to start drinking at, the three rules humans have learned through thousands of years of experience can help:

DrinkingRules

Canada Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines

Another guide to help teens manage alcohol use is Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines which states:

  • Individuals should never have more than two drinks a day.
    • Females should never have more than two drinks a day or ten drinks per week.
    • Males should never have more than three drinks a day or 15 per week.
  • Teens should talk with their parents about drinking and should limit themselves to one to two drinks at a time, one to two times per week.

Helpful Hints

You can give your child all the facts and explain the dangers of drinking alcohol, but they may still choose to drink. Here are some tips that can help them prevent hurting themselves and others:

1. Before drinking …

  • Be clear about why you want to drink. Is it going to help you or make things worse?
  • Eat something. Food reduces the speed at which your body absorbs alcohol.
  • Know the strength of your alcohol. Look on the label for the percentage of alcohol. A small bottle can pack more punch than a larger one; it depends on the percentage of alcohol in the beverage. For example, a 341 millilitre bottle of seven per cent cooler contains more alcohol than a typical bottle of beer.
  • Set limits on how much you’re going to drink. And commit to sticking to your plan.

2. While drinking…

  • Keep track of your drinks. This will help you avoid drinking more than you wanted.
  • Drink slowly. Alternate drinks with water or other non-alcoholic beverages to avoid drinking too much.
  • Stay in the company of trusted friends. That way, you can help each other if something goes wrong. Drinking at home may be the best option.

3. If going out …

  • Choose drinking places with care. Things can get out of control in places where there is no adult supervision, or where it’s crowded and chaotic.
  • Plan a safe way to get home before you even get to your destination. You’ll be less tempted to make bad choices if you have a good plan.
  • Stick to one substance at a time. Alcohol can magnify the effects of marijuana and some other drugs, including prescription drugs, in unpredictable ways.
  • Avoid getting drunk. Drinking too much puts you at risk of making bad choices that may seem fun or funny at the time but may cost you later in terms of your health, relationships, money or the law.
  • Avoid having sex with an unfamiliar partner. Carry condoms as a common practice.

Did you know?
Youth, late teens to age 24, should never have more than two drinks a day or ten a week (for girls) or three drinks a day or 15 a week (for guys).


Resources & Links:

HealthLink BC: Substance Use Problems: How to Help your Child
Here to Help: Alcohol and Youth
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse: Canadian Standards for Youth Substance Abuse Prevention

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