Behavior & Development • Aug 31, 2015

When do kids start drinking alcohol?

Most parents don’t realize how much their children drink– research shows that only 10 percent of parents think their teens drink, yet 52 percent of teens admit to drinking alcohol. But parents admit that other peoples’ kids drink—the same study showed that parents estimated that 60 percent of 10th graders drink.

It’s our kids that drink, not other peoples’. Yes, even well-raised children with loving parents.

As parents, we need to remember the harsh reality that our children are not immune to the vices of this world, and alcohol is a frequent culprit. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, alcohol is the substance most frequently abused by teens, and its use leads to the most injuries and deaths from accidents, homicides and suicides among teens.

I live this reality as a pediatrician in the emergency room. Here’s what I see:
A 15 year-old stumbled into my ER at 2 am, barely conscious, supported by his terrified mother. He was out with friends, dropped off at home, seemed tired and went to bed. The mom of one of his friends just called, and her son is in another ER unconscious, poisoned by something someone allegedly slipped into his drink. “They must have done the same thing to him,” my patient’s mother tells me.

I attach monitors, start oxygen, hang IV fluids and draw a “coma panel”— myriad of tests meant to pick out what toxic substance could have poisoned this patient. I didn’t have to wait long for the answer…

Alcohol. No date rape drugs, no heroin, just alcohol. All the other tests came back negative, and the patient slowly woke up and went home to shake off a really bad hangover. Apparently the patient’s friend in the other ER had only alcohol in his blood, too.

The saddest part was the mom who wouldn’t believe me. “Isn’t there something else wrong with him?” she asked me. “He swears he didn’t drink anything.” I struggled to think of a gentle reply, but I couldn’t find words. Finally, I sighed and said, “I don’t know how you get a blood alcohol level that high without drinking.”

Here’s the kicker: 80 percent of teens say their parents are the biggest influence on their decision to drink. You are the strongest force to protect your children from alcohol abuse. Even if you think your kids don’t care what you have to say… they really do. The best solution for underage drinking is to talk to our kids, and talk early. Children start to think positively about alcohol around age 9-13, so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends we start talking to our children about alcohol around age 9.

That’s right– I just said you should talk to your 9-year-old about alcohol. I have. Have you?

So what’s wrong with an occasional drink, especially if teens drink responsibly? Here’s what the data says:
The younger you start, the more likely you are to have an adult drinking problem: Adults age 21 or older who started using alcohol before age 15 were almost 6 times as likely to have alcohol dependence or abuse than adults who first used alcohol at age 21 or older (15.1 percent vs. 2.6 percent), according to SAMHSA’s 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Drinking isn’t good for your grades: About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking, including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall, according to a 2002 study by The Harvard School of Public Health (Wechsler et al).

Unsafe sex and rape usually happen after drinking: In a large study between 1998-2005, 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. 400,000 students had unprotected sex and more than 100,000 students report having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex (Hingson et al., 2009).

You’ll wind up in the ER: In the same study, 599,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 were unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol (Hingson et al., 2009).

You can die: 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 died from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes (Hingson et al., 2009).

Our kids’ brains aren’t mature yet; the white matter continues to develop through adolescence. Even the best kids can have very poor judgment every once in a while—I see this in the ER all the time. Any amount of alcohol just makes their judgment even worse. There are good reasons why the drinking age was increased from 18 to 21.

Talk to your kids about alcohol – bring it up casually and be non-threatening about it. Maybe even quote the statistics above to start a conversation. Tell them real stories of your life when you have seen alcohol hurt people. Show them you’re not an ignorant parent. They’ll love you for it.


  1. Most adults can’t handle alcohol. There is a rampant drinking problem in adults too! If we are to show our children that drink is wrong, then we should clean up our act first! If you have a drink because your day was hard at work, then why shouldn’t your kids see drinking as a crutch? If you drink all the time, and often, what does that tell the kids? Also, why not let your teen have a glass during the holidays with family? If you make it an “adult only” thing, then it makes the teens want it to be adult! One drink during a family dinner and holidays is not the same as coming home and drinking to shake off stress and binge drinking. Anyways, Europeans drink diluted drinks all the time, with no ill effects. If drink in America is the forbidden fruit, then one is more inclined to pluck it!

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