Underage Drinking

Girls today are more likely to drink—and to start when they are younger. If your daughter is already 12, it may seem unbelievable, but she has reached the average age when kids take their first drink. By age 14, the odds climb to one in three that she has tried alcohol. For the first time ever, girls are drinking alcohol at the same rate as boys—a competition that we don’t want them to win.

The first step to preventing harmful underage drinking is understanding why your daughter might be tempted. When she is passed a beer while hanging out with friends, she may drink to be seen as “cool,” to feel less self-conscious, or to relax. If she went through puberty relatively early, she may be pressured to drink because she looks older than her chronological age—and peers expect more of her. Your daughter may be more tempted to use alcohol if she worries about how she looks or whether she fits in. That is because she consistently sees drinking portrayed as glamorous and sexy in movies, television, and advertising.

As with all difficult topics, it is best to begin discussions as early as possible. By age 9 or 10, discuss directly how hard it may be for her to resist drinking and give her good reasons to postpone. Explain that early drinking (especially before age 15) predisposes her to later substance abuse problems and makes her more vulnerable to accidents, violence and sexual assaults. She also should know that she will get drunk faster than adults and even faster than boys her own age because her brain is still maturing and girls metabolize alcohol differently. Tell her that you are concerned because drinking compromises judgment, getting in the way of her taking good care of herself. For too many young girls, getting drunk is associated with being sexual, often with regrets and harmful consequences.

Many parents feel confused about what they can do, especially because they look around and believe that “every teen drinks.” Be clear about your family’s rules. Set a good example for your daughter by using alcohol in moderation—and never to cope with stress. Help her to socialize without drinking by supporting alcohol-free events in your community, such as dances, dinners and games. Make an agreement that she can always call you for a ride home, no questions asked, if she is uncomfortable at a party or questions whether it would be safe to drive with someone. If you suspect that your daughter has begun to drink, tell her you need to talk. Be careful not to accuse her, but ask her for more information so you can understand the situation. For support, contact the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence at www.ncadd.org or the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at www.niaaa.nih.gov .

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