Teen Drinking – Should You Still Try Talking About It When They Come Home for the Holidays?

Teen Drinking – Should You Still Try Talking About It When They Come Home for the Holidays?

Teen Drinking – can parents still have an impact when their teen’s been away at college and only home for the holidays? Or what about their high school senior who’s finally in the home stretch to graduation?

Teen Drinking – what do (or can) you say about drinking to a college freshman home for the holidays? Not only that, but what do you say to a senior in high school who’s finally in the home stretch to graduation?

This is a tough position for parents. I know it was for me. But according to The Partnership at DrugFree.org, the MOST influential person in a child’s decision to drink (or use drugs) is their parent. Not only that, “90% of addictions start in the teen years,” reports The Partnership. “Cut the risk in half by talking to your kids.”

Now the point of this post is not to suggest that teens who binge drink or abuse alcohol in high school or college are necessarily going to be come alcoholics. In fact, they aren’t, and they don’t. But it’s the “what can happen” with just that one time or with the repeated abuse that’s potentially the problem.

So what do you say? As we talk amongst ourselves as parents, we find a range of parental opinions. Some argue, “All teens drink – what’s the big deal?” Or they believe, “It’s important to teach my teen to drink before s/he goes off to college.” Or they’re concerned about how it sounds to their teen when they say, “I don’t want you to drink. It’s okay that I do because I’m an adult [and their teen is 18].” Or they may recall their own high school drinking experiences and feel hypocritical telling their teen not to drink.

Nonetheless, it’s still important to engage in the conversation from time-to-time — even when they’re home for the holidays. But how?

For me – I like the full disclosure approach vs abstinence only (think abstinence only sex education). In my opinion it does no good to tell a teen, “No…,” or “Don’t…,” without giving them some of the scientific facts and reasons for why they want to drink in the first place and why waiting can be helpful for their brains. Let’s face it, when teens see friends who drink and make it out okay, they won’t believe you if you just say something like, “Drinking is bad for you.” And once you lose your credibility, you lose your teen’s ear. (As it’s turned out, this approach was the ‘right’ one in the opinion of my daughters, as well, both of whom drank as freshman in college and even in high school – not with my permission or condonation, of course). But both reported it was my constant messaging – bringing up the subject from various angles – including the conversations starters below, as well as those we had about Risk Factors and Secondhand Drinking.

6 Teen Drinking Conversation Starters

1. There’s a good reason people like to drink so it makes sense you’d like to, as well. People drink (teens and adults) because it changes how they feel – either making them feel good or less inhibited or more social or…. These changed feelings are the result of the way alcohol works on neural networks in the brain. When consumed in moderation, with a healthy, fully developed brain, it’s fine – like eating a wonderful meal or enjoying a fun date or surfing in the late afternoon on a warm summer’s day. When consumed in quantities that exceed the very rough average of one hour / drink – the time it takes for the liver to process the alcohol in one standard drink (see #2) – the excess sits in the brain (and other body tissue) and changes how the brain works. This means it affects neural networks that deal with memory, judgment, learning, emotions, balance, breathing — just about all of them because the brain controls everything we think, feel, say and do. Now notice I said, “fully developed brain.” The teen brain is not the brain of an adult and this fact causes alcohol to react differently in the teen brain (so does the presence of risk factors, by the way). In fact, it takes until approximately age 22 for women and 24 for men for the brain to complete the cerebral cortex and pruning strengthening brain developmental processes. This National Institute on Drug Addition (NIDA) link, Drugs and the Brain, gives more detail on how it is that drugs and alcohol (alcohol is classified as a drug, by the way) work on neural networks in the brain.

2. Did you know alcohol is not processed like other foods and liquids, which is why a person acts the way they do when drunk? Alcohol enters the bloodstream through the walls of the small intestine. Because alcohol dissolves in water, the bloodstream carries it throughout the body (which is 60-70% water) where it is absorbed into body tissue high in water content, such as the brain. The liver metabolizes alcohol – meaning that’s how it leaves the body – we can’t vomit, sweat or urinate it out. That’s because alcohol is not digested like other foods or liquids. It takes the liver about one hour (often up to two) to metabolize the alcohol in one standard drink. Four drinks will take four hours. There are many variables that influence how quickly alcohol is metabolized, including weight, gender, stress, medications, and stage of brain development. Notice the phrase, “stage of brain development.” The teen brain goes through some key developmental processes, especially through one’s early 20s. Because the teen brain is not fully developed, young drinkers are more vulnerable than adults to many of the effects of alcohol in some areas of the brain — areas that control and modulate emotion, memory, learning, motivation and judgment, for example, AND less vulnerable in other areas — areas that control drowsiness or lack of coordination. The latter is partly what gives the perception that a young drinker can “handle” their drinking.

Because the brain is mostly water and highly vascularized (meaning lots of blood vessels) and it controls everything we think, feel, say and do, the excess alcohol (waiting its turn out the liver) stays in the bloodstream and suppresses certain brain functions, such as the ability to “think” straight and act normally. This is why a person can find him/herself engaging in the drinking behaviors listed in #4.

3. Did you know alcohol works differently in the teen brain than it does in the adult brain? Check out this link, the science in a nutshell, at The Partnership at DrugFree.org, for all kinds of information as to what this means for underage drinking.

4. Did you know there’s actually a “number of drinks” definition for binge drinking, which is often how people get into trouble – too much alcohol sitting in the brain suppresses brain function. Binge drinking is defined as having 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women and 5 or more for men. Binge drinking can cause a person to engage in drinking behaviors – even if the drinking pattern occurs only once, like those listed below:

  • Fighting with friends or family about the drinking; saying or doing things you don’t remember or regret.
  • Experiencing blackouts – fragmentary or complete; vomiting; passing out.
  • Driving while under the influence; riding in a car with someone who is.
  • Having unplanned or unprotected sex.
  • Being admitted to the emergency room with a high BAC
  • Doing poorly at work or school because of recovering from the drinking.

And by the way: “normal” or “low-risk” drinking limits are defined as: no more than 3 standard drinks on any one day or 7 in a week for women and no more than 4 standard drinks on any day or 14 in a week for men.

5. Did you know there’s such a thing as a “standard drink?” Often people get into trouble with drinking because they aren’t aware of concepts, such as a standard drink, which is defined as 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 8-9 ounces of malt liquor (think ale or lager beers), or 1.5 ounces of “hard liquor,” such as 80-proof vodka, gin, bourbon or scotch.

Not only are people unaware of the sizes of a standard drink of various alcoholic beverages, but they are also not fully aware of how many standard drinks are in common cocktails or drink containers. This confusion is what makes it so easy for a person to engage in binge drinking (defined in #4 above), which in turn changes brain function (and therefore behaviors) because of the way alcohol is processed by the body (see #2).

Another approach for this conversation is to visit NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking, together. They have some great calculator tools for conversations, such as: “If your friends are drinking, one way to keep yourself safe and to do what you can to keep them safe is to understand how many drinks are in a glass or container. For example, did you know a tall beer contains 2 drinks? Using this drink size calculator, let’s see how many standard drinks are in a red cup of wine.”

6.  Rolling a friend on their side after they’ve passed out can kill them. Because of #2, alcohol also works in the motor skills portion of the brain – breathing, walking, heartbeat. If there is more alcohol in the system than the liver can process – and the quantity is great enough –  it can actually suppress neural networks that control breathing and heartbeat while it waits its turn out the liver at the average rate of one drink/hour. Drinking 6 shots and 4 beers is at least 10 standard drinks – a quantity that will take on average 10 hours to be metabolized by the liver. So, share these facts about alcohol poisoning with your teen:

Critical Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
•  Mental confusion, stupor, coma, or person cannot be roused.
•  Vomiting.
•  Seizures.
•  Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute).
•  Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths).

•  Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, paleness.

What Should I Do If I Suspect Someone Has Alcohol Poisoning?
•  Call 911 for help immediately
•  Do not wait for all symptoms to be present.
•  Be aware that a person who has passed out may die.
•  Again, if there is any suspicion of an alcohol overdose, call 911 for help. Don’t try to guess the level of drunkenness.

What Can Happen to Someone With Alcohol Poisoning That Goes Untreated?
•  Victim chokes on his or her own vomit.
•  Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
•  Heart beats irregularly or stops.
•  Hypothermia (low body temperature).
•  Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures.
•  Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage or death.

Even if the victim lives, an alcohol overdose can lead to irreversible brain damage. Rapid binge drinking (defined as 4 or more standard drinks/occasion for women and 5 or more for men) is especially dangerous because the victim can ingest a fatal dose before becoming unconscious.


Sharing this kind of information with your teen empowers them. If a teen fully understands the concepts of a standard drink and a ‘standard drinks’ count’ for binge drinking, as examples, they can be prepared to protect themselves from potential Secondhand Drinking outcomes, in addition to making healthy decisions for their own brains. They can:

  • count their friend’s drinks and better understand why their friend is behaving the way they are (because of alcohol’s impact on the brain while waiting to be metabolized by the liver)
  • know not to take to heart anything their friend says while under the influence (because alcohol’s impact on the brain changes a person’s behaviors)
  • know never to accept a ride, even if their friend has only had “a couple.”

The most important thing is to keep talking!

For additional teen drinking conversation starters…

…check out my new eBook, Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence – just $3.99. [Link to free apps to read Kindle on Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad…]

If you’d like to comment on this post or share it, please click on the post title at the top of the article. My apologies for the inconvenience, but I really appreciate your participation!

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
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 BreakingTheCycles.com. 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.
Lisa Frederiksen

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8 Responses to Teen Drinking – Should You Still Try Talking About It When They Come Home for the Holidays?

  1. Hi Lisa,

    Great information for parents! December is one of the peak months for first time users of drugs or alcohol, so it is the perfect time for parents to start the conversation, and continue the conversation. I like your point, “it does no good to tell a teen, “No…,” or “Don’t…,” without giving them some of the scientific facts and reasons for why they want to drink in the first place and why waiting can be helpful for their brains.” We have to be realistic for our kids to buy into what we are saying, but continued reminders about what drinking & drug abuse actually is doing to their brain is a powerful deterrent.

  2. Great advice as always Lisa. I don’t think it is ever too early to talk to your children about alcohol and as parents we need to wise up too!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Carolyn. It’s never too early – and equally important is that it’s never too early for parents to model the kind of ‘relationship’ with alcohol they’d like their children to model when adults. Thanks for your comment!

  3. BarbaraJPeters says:

    Anytime is a perfect time to talk to your children about alcohol. It’s importnt to engage with your children and most times when you open a door for genuine communication your children will feel that and be more likely to open up to you. Lead by example.

  4. Great info and useful tips. Thanks, once again, Lisa, for a great post!

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