Talking to Teens About the Hidden Dangers of Underage Drinking

Talking to Teens About the Hidden Dangers of Underage Drinking

“So what, mom, it’s just a few beers.”

Have you ever heard that refrain from your kid? If so, it’s time to talk about drinking. You may think you’re powerless to put a stop to underage drinking, but did you know that parents are the #1 reason why kids decide not to drink alcohol?

What you say to your kids about drinking can change their life for the better.


There’s no doubt that teenage drinking is fraught with trouble—drunk driving, car accidents, risky sexual activity, and stupid decisions. These are just some of the familiar short-term consequences associated with alcohol intake during the teenage years.

What many parents don’t realize is that drinking also comes with many long-term emotional, cognitive, and brain health consequences. For example, did you know that heavy drinking as a teen is associated with an increased risk of:

These issues can have devastating impacts on your teen’s future. They can keep your child from reaching their academic potential, prevent them from getting into the college they want, or deprive them of a scholarship they might have earned. They can also be detrimental to relationships, future career opportunities, and overall well-being. In short, it can ruin their life.


A growing body of brain imaging research shows that teenage drinking also has damaging effects on the brain, which is undergoing rapid development up until the age of about 25. Here are some of the ways it can impact the teen brain.

  • Decreased brain functioning. At Amen Clinics, which has built the world’s largest database of functional brain scans related to behavior, some of the worst SPECT scans are those of alcoholics and drug addicts. SPECT scans of alcoholics typically show low overall blood flow, which is associated with decreased functioning. These effects have been seen on SPECT scans of teens as young as 14 years old. A number of brain imaging studies have found that alcohol use during adolescence is linked to reduced ability in several areas. The book Reducing Underage Drinking details research showing a decrease in attention, memory, planning, spatial operations, and executive function.
  • Underage drinking can wire the brain for alcoholism. Research in the Journal of Substance Abuse shows that kids who start drinking before the age of 15 have a 41% chance of alcoholism, compared with a 10% chance for those who don’t start until the legal drinking age.
  • Smaller brain regions. Drinking heavily as a child or adolescent can alter brain development in numerous ways, resulting in areas that are smaller than in those of nondrinkers. Brain imaging studies have found that the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and learning, is smaller in young people who abuse alcohol compared with non-drinkers. Young alcohol abusers also performed worse on memory tests than their non-drinking peers.
  • Negative impacts on myelinization. Myelinization is an important process in which brain cells are coated with a protective sheath that increases the brain’s processing speeds. The process, which isn’t completed until about age 25, starts at the back of the brain and works forward, making the prefrontal cortex the last area to gain the protective covering. The PFC is involved with decision-making, attention, executive function, impulse control, and empathy. Research shows that excessive drinking at a young age can disrupt this process.


Talking to your teen about drinking is so important. Here are 6 tips to help you do it.

1. Start early and don’t stop.

It’s important to start talking to kids about alcohol before they enter the teen years. But it’s equally important to think of this as an ongoing conversation rather than a one-and-done deal. Continue talking to them about drinking when they are in junior high, high school, and beyond.

2. Show, don’t just tell.

Seeing is believing. Showing young people the brain scans of healthy people versus those who are moderate drinkers or alcoholics can be an eye-opener. This article on “5 Scary Ways Alcohol Can Damage the Brain” shows a brain scan of a drinker and can provide you with some good talking points.

3. Encourage kids to love their brain.

Share the knowledge that loving and caring for their brain will help them be happier, get better grades, be more successful, have stronger relationships with their friends, and have a better love life. The Amen University online course “Brain Thrive By 25” is taught in high schools around the country and can help kids learn how to love and care for their brain.

4. Pay attention.

Show your child that you care about them by paying attention to them. Be on the lookout for behaviors that may be signs they are drinking and talk to them about it. Kids are more likely to drink when they believe their parents won’t find out, so be present and be aware. And talk to them about what you notice.

5. Be a good role model.

Don’t take the “do as I say not as I do” approach. If you are routinely having alcoholic beverages when your child is around, they will learn that drinking is okay. Think about the behavior you are modeling for your kids.

6. Get help early.

If your youngster is developing a drinking problem, don’t wait to seek help. Talk to them about seeing a professional who can help them regain control of their life.

Addictions, anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. The first thing the college student will say is “I don’t drink that often.” or they will ask “What is ‘drinking heavily’?” How can I explain how much is too much? Is drinking heavily defined as a certain amount and frequency (ie 3 beers a day) or binge drinking or both? Thank you for any clarification you can lend so we can talk with the kids with more clarity. I guarantee, they will not think that whatever level of drinking they are doing is ‘heavy’ drinking because they will compare themselves with someone who drinks so much more in quantity or frequency!

    Comment by Heather distler — August 14, 2020 @ 6:06 AM

  2. I need help my adults kids leave with me ,they are alcoholic 4of them .How can I help them.Theu don’t listen ?they wanted to stop but are not able too .
    Need help . It is bad situation,

    Comment by Kanene felo — August 24, 2020 @ 7:29 AM

  3. Hello Kanene, thank you for reaching out. We have additional information on our website about Drugs and Alcohol Addiction here: Being able to identify the effects of alcohol addiction in their brains using a SPECT scan would be a great first step towards treatment and other lifestyle changes. For more information, please contact us:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — August 26, 2020 @ 12:51 PM

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