Secondhand Drinking – Understand, Treat and/or Prevent It and We Can Reduce Alcohol Abuse, Alcoholism and Underage Drinking

Secondhand Drinking is caused by another person’s drinking behaviors. If we understand the causes of drinking behaviors, we can prevent secondhand drinking. And, if we prevent secondhand drinking, we can reduce underage drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism. How?

First is to Understand Drinking Behaviors

When a child is exposed to chronic secondhand drinking, his/her brain actually changes how it will develop. See post, "Stress and the Developing Brain."

Chronic exposure to secondhand drinking changes the way a child’s brain wires. See post, “Stress and the Developing Brain.”

These are the behaviors that a person exhibits when they drink more than the brain and body can process because the excessive alcohol in the brain changes the way neural networks in the brain communicate with one another – some of the neural networks most affected are those responsible for judgment, memory, coordination, pleasure/reward and reasoning. This link explains that process: “Understand How the Body Process Alcohol | Reduce Secondhand Drinking”.

Drinking behaviors occur with binge drinking, alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and underage drinking of the binge drinking amount. This short video explains the differences between “at-risk drinking” (which is defined as heavy social drinking and binge drinking), alcohol abuse and alcoholism, “Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.”

Common drinking behaviors include:

  • Verbally, physically or emotionally abusing someone – often a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend or child
  • Doing poorly at work or school because of the drinking or recovering from the drinking
  • Fighting with loved ones about the drinking
  • Experiencing blackouts
  • Being inconsistent in one’s behaviors (more loving or solicitous or more offensive and nit-picking than when not drinking, as examples); pursuing insane, circular arguments or trains of illogical thought
  • Getting a DUI; driving while under the influence of alcohol
  • Having unplanned, unwanted or unprotected sex; date rape

Drinking behaviors have an impact on the person who is on the receiving end of the behavior. [Further explanations below.]


There are several entry points to the disease of alcoholism and the condition of alcohol abuse.These entry points are called risk factors. Many of these risk factors are the result of secondhand drinking – in other words, the impacts a person experiences as the result of a someone else’s abusive drinking and/or alcoholism. Chronic exposure to secondhand drinking causes serious emotional and physical health problems as a result of the chronically activated fight-or-flight system. This post explains, “The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking | Drugging (SHDD).”

These risk factors include:

  • Genetics – persons whose parent or sibling are alcoholics are 4-7 times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. It is estimated there are some 25 genes that influence a predisposition to alcoholism, such as lower levels of the liver enzyme that metabolizes alcohol or higher or lower levels of dopamine. Just was we have genetic predispositions to eye or skin color or body type or some cancers, so, too, can a person inherit genetic predispositions to alcoholism.
  • Early use – because of the critical brain development that occurs from ages 12–25, an adolescent can become an alcoholic in as little as 6 to 18 months; persons who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who wait until 21.
  • Social environment – people who live, work or go to school in an environment in which the heavy use of alcohol is common – such as growing up in a home where heavy drinking is seen as ‘normal’ or in a school setting where it is viewed as an important way to bond with fellow students – are more likely to abuse alcohol themselves. This level of drinking may or may not progress into alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism for the reasons of genetics, early use, mental illness and/or childhood trauma.
  • Mental illness – just over one-half of persons diagnosed as alcoholics or alcohol abusers have also experienced a mental illness (e.g., depression, PTSD, ADHD, bipolar) at some time in their lives; mental illness causes chemical and structural changes in the brain, as does alcohol abuse or alcoholism. A person with a mental illness often uses alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of the mental illness. By the same token, alcohol may exacerbate an existing mental illness – for example, alcohol is a depressant which can further depress a person with depression.
  • Childhood trauma – verbal, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, persistent conflict in the family (such as that surrounding a family member’s alcohol abuse or alcoholism), sexual abuse and other traumatic childhood experiences can shape a child’s brain chemistry and subsequent vulnerability to addiction.


The more risk factors – entry points – a person has, the more likely they are to develop a problem with alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism. Take a young person who has grown up in a family where there is untreated, unhealthily discussed alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism, for example (and therefore untreated, unhealthily discussed secondhand drinking impacts).

That young person potentially experiences three of these risk factors: Genetics, Childhood Trauma and Social Environment. That young person may also experience depression or anxiety as a consequence of the craziness that can exist in a family with untreated alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism, which presents a fourth risk factor – Mental Illness. If that same young person decides to experiment with alcohol in middle school or high school because that’s what their peer group is into or they are provided alcohol by a drinking parent who has a skewed view of drinking, anyway, and finds that drinking helps to relieve their sad and anxious feelings (at least while drinking), that young person now is faced with a fifth risk factor, Early Use, which can develop into an alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism drinking pattern – especially in the presence of the other key risk factors. Each of these risk factors is a secondhand drinking impact — a ripple effect of someone else’s alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism.


Preventing or mitigating the entry points reduces the secondhand drinking impacts, which in turn, reduces the likelihood of a young person engaging in underage drinking, alcohol abuse and/or developing the disease of alcoholism. A bold claim, I realize, but we have a very successful model to follow for this approach — secondhand smoke.

When we were focused on trying to get the smoker to stop smoking, it was easy for those in their sphere to dismiss the problem as, “I don’t care if she smokes. Doesn’t bother me.” Once new research proved the impacts of a person’s smoke on the health of others (i.e., secondhand smoke), there was a whole new appreciation for the far-reaching harm caused by an individual’s decision to smoke, and a whole new shift in society’s view and tolerance for secondhand smoke.

It is my opinion that if more of us understand the new brain research (see “What’s Changed” below) and secondhand drinking, we will have a key to reducing alcohol abuse, underage drinking and alcoholism – much the same way secondhand smoking campaigns changed America’s smoking culture. Yes, this is a bold claim, but think about that same young person, again.

If his (or her) elementary school’s substance abuse education program had a piece on the new brain research that explains alcoholism as a chronic relapsing brain disease and just what that means, that young person may have been able to separate his parent (whom I’ll now refer to as his father) from his father’s drinking behaviors. He may have been able to understand it was his father under the influence of alcohol, not his father doing and saying the crazy, mean things. He may have been able to understand his mother’s behaviors (some of them just as crazy as his father’s) were the result of her reactions to his father’s drinking behaviors, not because he hadn’t cleaned his room or gotten all A’s or was always forgetting to put the toilet seat down.

In other words, he may have understood it was not him causing his parents’ behaviors — it was his father’s chronic relapsing brain disease – alcoholism – and his mother’s reactions to it. He would have also learned his mother’s reactions were ‘normal’ when a person does not understand the disease of alcoholism or the condition of alcohol abuse, but they are not healthy or productive. He’d have understood his mother’s behaviors were the result of her desperate attempts to do something — anything — to make it stop; an impossible task that left her feeling angry, sad and frustrated every time she failed to do so.

All of this knowledge might have reduced that young person’s depression and anxiety because he would have understood early on that as long as his father drank and his mother did not understand a healthier way of coping with it, his father would continue those drinking behaviors and his mother would continue her reactions (some even more hurtful than his father’s behaviors!). Knowing this would have helped that young person understand that the only thing he could do was to get help with developing healthy coping skills himself, which his teacher and school counselor would have been aware of, given the enhanced substance abuse education programs that would have incorporated those, as well.

Or if that young person’s pediatrician had received this new addiction education in medical school (something that does not occur, in most cases, by the way) and insurance companies covered the cost of a pediatrician taking an extra 15 minutes beyond a covered visit, the pediatrician would have been able to use brief assessment tools to gently probe substance use in the child’s family. If the child opened up about what was going on, the pediatrician could have helped the child understand what alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism is and is not, thereby helping the child recognize their anxious and sad feelings were likely the consequences of his father’s drinking behaviors and his mother’s reactions to them.

The pediatrician would also have been able to explain to the child the idea of genetic predisposition and thus the need for the child to be wary of early use of alcohol, because – you guessed it – the pediatrician could have explained the critical brain development that occurs from ages 12-25 and why alcohol abuse during that time is especially problematic — especially for a child whose parent is an alcoholic. And, like the teacher and school counselor, the pediatrician would have known resources that could have helped their young patient learn healthier coping skills.

Armed with all of this new information, that child may have overcome and/or avoided entirely the risk factors he was facing as the consequence of secondhand drinking. And, who knows…that child’s teacher sending home some of the education materials may have helped a parent or two think about their own drinking patterns enough to change them or helped another parent or two better understand what alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse were really all about and what they could or could not do to help their spouse stop drinking.  (Okay, okay, YES, this is an oversimplification… but you get the idea.)


It is being done. It’s just very, very new. Thanks to new brain imaging technologies of the past 10-15 years, neuroscientists and medical professionals can now study the live human brain like never before. Some of the resulting discoveries and research findings (many in just the past decade) are:

  • shedding new light on brain functioning and development, explaining how a person can become an alcoholic before age 21 and why a person who abuses alcohol ‘thinks’ and behaves the way they do
  • providing the visual evidence of the chemical and structural changes that occur in the brain as a result of alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism (check out the brain scan blogs under the “Brain Scans” category to the right)
  • radically altering our understanding and/or treatments of
    – alcoholism (now understood to be a chronic relapsing brain disease),
    – alcohol abuse (now understood as something distinct from alcoholism), and
    – secondhand drinking, a term I’m using to describe the impacts of a person’s alcohol misuse on families, friends, co-workers, fellow students and society at large.

So, I urge all of us to be open to this new research and this new approach. Over one-half of American adults report having a loved one who drinks too much. Think about this — it’s an average of 1 out of every 2 adults.  One in four children in America will be exposed to a family member’s alcohol abuse, alcoholism or both before the age of 18. I urge all of us to learn as much as we can and to share this new research with others. Because the most important thing about ALL of THIS is that we’d be talking about it.

We’d be taking the disease of alcoholism out of the closet and exposing it for what it is — a chronic relapsing brain disease. We’d be talking about alcohol abuse for what it really is — a stage of drinking distinct from alcoholism — the stage at which secondhand drinking impacts for others begins. We would be pealing away the secrecy and shame that surrounds this disease — a disease that affects the entire family and through them, fellow students, co-workers, friends and society at large. We would be tackling the disease at its entry points — early use, mental illness, childhood trauma, social environment and genetics — where it could be arrested — before the person experiencing or exposed to the entry points suffered the consequences.

Who knows, with this approach, together we just may be able to cause a sea change in the drinking culture in much the same way as tackling secondhand smoke changed the smoking culture in America. Now wouldn’t that be something…

©2010 Lisa Frederiksen, Revised 2013.


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

One Response to Secondhand Drinking – Understand, Treat and/or Prevent It and We Can Reduce Alcohol Abuse, Alcoholism and Underage Drinking

  1. […] help you with this step, it will be important to understand Secondhand Drinking and  Risk Factors for developing the disease.  These Risk Factors (which are also Secondhand Drinking impacts) […]