How to talk to your teen about binge drinking
Experts recommend “real talk” about alcohol and its effects.
By Jamie Davis Smith
March 20, 2023
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as having four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women, and five or more drinks in two hours for men. But it’s not just adults that indulge too much. Teens often have more than one drink (or three) at a time, with 14% of high school students in the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reporting binge drinking within the last 30 days. In recent years adolescent girls have also reported more alcohol use and binge drinking than their male peers.
For that reason, it’s important for parents to talk to their children about alcohol, and binge drinking in particular, “early and often,” Dr. Jonathan Avery, vice chair of addiction psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life.
What are the risks of binge drinking?
Binge drinking is “detrimental to health,” Avery warns, as it “can lead to physical and mental health consequences and contributes to half of the annual deaths from alcohol.”
Avery says that binge drinking increases the risk of developing alcoholism and can lead to blackouts and other medical consequences. Those who binge drink will often struggle with “sleep, mood, anxiety and physical issues, including hangovers, stomach upset and tremors,” he explains. “In addition to the risk of accidents, violence and mistakes one may make while drinking, binge drinking can lead to chronic diseases such as cancer, liver disease, cardiovascular issues and cognitive deficits,” Avery adds. TheNational Institutes of Health found that binge drinking is also linked to later depression in adolescence and young adulthood for women.
“During binge-drinking episodes the person risks alcohol poisoning, respiratory depression, loss of consciousness and even death,” adds Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the How Can I Help?podcast. “Death can occur when they have not necessarily built a tolerance to the amount of alcohol they are drinking, and so a person can suffer essentially overdosing on alcohol. In addition binge drinkers can lose their usual inhibitions and do things they later regret, that are high-risk, and self-destructive.”
When should parents raise the issue of binge drinking?
Parents should address alcohol use, including binge drinking, early and on an ongoing basis, according to Avery, who recommends first raising the topic when children are 9 or 10 years old. Saltz tells Yahoo Life that “any alcohol use before the age of 15 increases your risk of developing alcohol use disorder in adulthood, and should be avoided altogether,” so it’s important to have the discussion before a child is exposed to alcohol.
“Too often, parents don’t address mental health issues or problematic substance use until an individual is in the middle of a crisis,” Avery adds. That can be too late.
When it comes to the timing of these discussions, Dr. Abid Nazeer, a practicing psychiatrist with double board certifications in both psychiatry and addiction medicine and senior medical adviser for Symetria Recovery, says “it’s best [teens] arrive at party settings equipped with an understanding of the risks involved with drinking, including casual consumption and binge drinking.”
Recognize that most teens will try alcohol
When parents talk about binge drinking, they should “recognize that their kids will most likely try alcohol and many will drink regularly,” Avery tells Yahoo Life. Nazeer agrees, and stresses that while most parents may not want their children to drink alcohol at all, “it’s realistic to expect that they may experiment with alcohol during their teen and college years.” He stresses that “reaching teens and young adults is a challenge, particularly if they’ve made up their minds about wanting to drink,” and it’s important not to cause them to feel “defensive and shut down.”
Occasional drinking isn’t usually harmful. “Having a drink or two does not usually lead to the disinhibition of high-risk behavior, does not lead to significant withdrawals, does not risk alcohol poisoning,” Saltz says. She adds that “late teen and college use of one or two drinks only on a Saturday night does not present the dangers of binge drinking.”
However, she notes that because drinking alcohol before turning 21 is illegal, any drinking as a teen or young adult presents legal risks. Moreover, “it’s fair to say that drinking can be a slippery slope — once your child has had one beer, they may be more susceptible to the peer pressure to consume more,” Saltz adds.
What parents should tell their kids about binge drinking
Saltz encourages parents to distinguish moral values and dangers when it comes to binge drinking. While parents can discuss their wishes about drinking with their children, this should be separate from their reasoning about the dangers of binge drinking, she says. She encourages “real talk about what alcohol is, what it does, how it works and therefore the risks to be aware of.”
Nazeer also recommends that parents discuss “the risks of drinking more than one drink of alcohol per hour” with their children, but adds that the “conversation should ideally be non-judgmental and open.” Avery suggests focusing “on understanding why people drink, what is too much and how to get help with mental health and problematic substance use issues should they occur.”
It’s also important for parents to talk about their own experiences and any family risk factors.
“Parents should acknowledge their own alcohol use and be open about risk factors for developing a drinking problem,” Avery says. “There should be open conversations about how much others in the family drink, and discussion of everyone’s personal risk for developing a problem with alcohol, including family histories of mental health struggles and trauma.”
Nazeer explains that “leading with personal stories can be helpful, as it can allow the teen to potentially be more transparent.”
What can a parent do if they suspect their child has been binge drinking?
If a parent notices their child acting differently, “it’s wise to check in and have a conversation about their alcohol use,” Nazeer says.
“Always make clear you will help your child first, and ask questions later,” adds Saltz. “You want them to call you if they are in a bad situation for help.”
Avery recommends approaching children who have engaged in binge drinking in “a non-judgmental way” and providing resources for them to get help, including encouraging them to talk to their doctor or another certified healthcare professional. “Help the child understand why they are drinking too much, and [tell them] that help is available,” he says.
Avery notes that there are many forms of support, including self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, medications and tele-health options that can provide help. Sometimes a child may need rehab to stop binge drinking, Saltz notes.